ATHENS Greece, Jan 24 – Greek lawmakers are expected to vote Thursday on a deal to change the name of neighbouring Macedonia and end one of the world’s longest diplomatic disputes.
The debate began Wednesday and is to conclude late Thursday night with a vote on the Prespa Agreement with Skopje signed in June last year to rename the former Yugoslav republic as the Republic of North Macedonia.
Macedonia’s parliament backed a constitutional revision to change the country’s name 10 days ago. But for the deal to go through, the change must also be approved by Greek MPs.
Greek opponents of the deal plan to protest outside parliament Thursday night to defend the “Greekness” of Macedonia.
On Sunday, clashes between police and masked protesters left several injured in Athens as tens of thousands demonstrated against the name change.
According to the government, “the incidents were provoked by extremists, members of the Golden Dawn, who attempted to enter parliament”.
A wide range of Greek political parties, from the far-right Golden Dawn to the Socialists, oppose the accord to rename Macedonia.
But it could nonetheless be approved by the required 151 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament.
The accord aims to start unravelling one of the world’s longest diplomatic disputes which began nearly three decades ago with Macedonia’s declaration of independence but has roots dating back centuries.
Since 1991, Athens has objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has a northern province of the same name. In ancient times it was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire, a source of intense pride for modern-day Greeks.
Last June, Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a landmark compromise over the name dispute. Their efforts brought the pair a nomination for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to normalising relations between the two countries, implementation of the agreement will open the door for Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO, hitherto blocked by Athens’ veto.
But in Greece, the name of its neighbour continues to fuel controversy in politics and society, a few months ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Tsipras’ ruling coalition was a victim of the controversy as it fell apart last week but he then narrowly won a confidence vote, setting the stage for the name-change vote in parliament.
Tsipras’ leftist Syriza party has 145 MPs and enough independent members have pledged their support to secure approval of the deal.
On the right, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on his MPs to denounce the “bad” agreement, accusing the government of surrendering “Macedonian identity and language” to its neighbour.
For many Greeks, especially in the north where the province of Macedonia is the birthplace of Alexander, the name “Macedonia” belongs to Greek historical heritage.
Some even fear the neighbouring country has designs on its namesake Greek province.
“These concerns are exaggerated,” Yannis Armakolas, professor of political science at the University of Thessaloniki, told AFP, deploring the lack of party consensus and “real public debate” on an issue of national importance.
“If the Prespa Agreement does not come into effect, the consequences of the failure will be profound and both sides might well reconsider many elements that had been agreed to,” UN mediator Matthew Nimetz said in an interview with Greek news agency ANA.
Opposition leader Mitsotakis has been calling for early elections. He promised “a new negotiation” with the neighboring country if the agreement is not endorsed by parliament and in case of victory in the next elections.
But Nimetz said reaching a new agreement “would take years, not months, given that all the issues would once again be on the table, and given that there are likely to be different political dynamics in both countries, as well as changes in the regional and global environment.”