World News

Macedonia Agrees to Change its Name to Resolve Dispute With Greece

Posted June 12, 2018 4:14 p.m. EDT

ATHENS, Greece — Macedonia agreed to change its name to resolve a decades-old dispute with Greece, the two countries said Tuesday, and Greece said it would drop its objection to the neighboring country’s entry into the European Union and NATO if the changes are formally adopted.

Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said the country’s new name will be Severna Makedonija or Republic of North Macedonia. Greece had long opposed the name “Macedonia,” saying it implied territorial aspirations over a northern Greek region of the same name.

“I am deeply convinced that the agreement is a diplomatic success and a historic opportunity,” Tsipras said. He called it a “historic moment for the Balkans and our nations” and said it “opens a window to solidarity, friendship cooperation, prosperity and mutual growth.”

Greece, which has blocked Macedonia from joining from joining NATO and the European Union, said the deal will pave the neighboring country’s way into the two alliances as long as it follows through and formally adopts the name change.

“We said ‘yes’ to Macedonia’s future. And that future lies within EU and NATO,” Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a speech to his nation. “The chance is here and it must be taken, boldly and patriotically,” he added. “We are solving a dispute that lasted 25 years,” one that has been “holding us down from prosperity.”

The agreement was the culmination of many years of U.N.-mediated negotiations that had intensified in the past six months. In recent weeks, the talks edged forward amid hopes by Western governments that a breakthrough would allow Macedonia to join the international alliances and would stabilize the western Balkans.

Tsipras told President Prokopis Pavlopoulos of Greece about the agreement in a televised exchange after speaking by telephone with Zaev. It was the second call in two days.

The European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and its enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, issued a joint statement calling it a “historic agreement” that “contributes to the transformation of the entire region.”

Matthew Nimetz, the U.N. mediator in the dispute for more than 25 years, also welcomed the deal.

“I have no doubt this agreement will lead to a period of enhanced relations between the two neighboring countries and especially between their people,” he said.

Tsipras said that the new name would be used both domestically and internationally and that Macedonia would change its constitution to reflect the changes — two key demands by Athens.

The new name offers a “clear distinction” between the Greek region and the neighboring country, Tsipras said. Apart from the name change, the deal also stipulates that the neighboring country “can claim no relation to the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia,” he added.

The deal is far from watertight. Zaev has promised to put it to a referendum, probably in September, and it must be approved by the parliaments of both countries.

Objections by the political opposition in both countries could also pose obstacles.

Tsipras’ coalition partner Panos Kammenos, who is also Greece’s defense minister, reiterated on Tuesday his party’s opposition to a deal that includes the name Macedonia. He said his party, the right-wing Independent Greeks, would not back such an agreement in Parliament, and he threatened to eject any lawmakers who stray from the party line.

Greek opposition parties have also expressed concerns about the deal. The leader of the conservative New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, asked to see the Greek president on Tuesday to express worries about the government’s handling of the negotiations.

He called on Tsipras not to sign what he called a bad agreement which includes “unacceptable national concessions” and would divide Greeks.

The developments came a week after thousands of Greeks took to the streets in cities across the country to protest a compromise in the Macedonia name talks, which some see as a potential threat to Greek territory. There have been protests, too, in the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, where many see Greek demands as unreasonable.

In Greece, the Macedonia dispute touches on issues of identity, culture and history.

The Greek region of Macedonia was the center of the kingdom of Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek warrior king. The region was carved up after the Balkan wars in the early 20th century following decades of fighting among Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians. About half the territory became part of Greece, with most of the rest going to Serbia and Bulgaria.

Slavs who identify themselves as ethnic Macedonians had long pressed for a separate state. Greek fears about a renewed territorial threat resurfaced with the breakup of Yugoslavia and have resurged in recent weeks as leaders in Athens and Skopje negotiated a deal.

News of an agreement fueled feverish commentary on social media in Greece. Some accused the government of selling out and betraying the country, while a few expressed relief that the resolution of a long-standing and bitter dispute might be within reach.