Macedonia and Greece sign heroic name deal amid fierce opposition

Macedonia and Greece sign heroic name deal amid fierce opposition
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje June 17, 2018

Macedonia and Greece signed a historic deal on June 17 to solve the bitter name dispute between the two countries, despite fierce resistance by opposition parties in both countries.

The deal sets the new name for the tiny Balkan country as Republic of North Macedonia, even though this is unacceptable for many at home and also in Greece. The new name is aimed to distinguish the country now called Macedonia from a province in northern Greece that has the same name. The deal was the result of six months of intense talks and comes after a more than two decades of dispute between Skopje and Athens.

For the authorities in both countries the agreement is a triumph as it will put an end to the long dispute, while for Macedonia it will pave the way for Euro-Atlantic integration as Greece have been blocking its membership of the EU and Nato due to the unresolved issue. 

The deal was signed in Prespes, on the Greek side of Prespa lake, which is split between the two countries, at 10.40 AM Macedonian time, by the foreign ministers of Macedonia and Greece, Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kotzias. Before the signing, prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras delivered speeches at the ceremony attended by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and UN mediator in the dispute Matthew Nimetz.

“A beautiful and magnificent day,” said Zaev before the signing ceremony.

For Zaev this is an historic opportunity to enhance cooperation between the two countries in the economic sphere and to ease trade and the flow of people as well as to build a strong partnership with Greece.

“We are proud of this agreement as it is about a solution that unites,” Zaev said, adding that isolation will benefit no one.

Nimetz congratulated both sides on the strategic agreement, saying that only politicians with courage and vision can find such a solution.

“Today is my birthday. I told my family this year I don’t need any gifts because two prime ministers are going to give me a big gift,” said Nimetz, who turned 79.

The ceremony ended with the symbolic gesture of Zaev by giving his necktie to Tsipras as a gift.

Taking opposition to the streets 

A day earlier, Tsipras survived a no-confidence motion over the deal, filed by the country's main opposition party, New Democracy. The motion was rejected in a 153-127 vote, which paved the way for the historic signing on June 17.

Before the vote, protesters gathered for the second day in a row in front of the Greek parliament to oppose the deal. Riot police fired tear gas at one point to disperse demonstrators.

Many in Greece see the name issue as a bid by Skopje to hijack Greece’s ancient cultural heritage. 

Daily protests have also been held in Skopje in front of the parliament since Zaev announced on June 12 he had reached the deal with Tsipras. On June 17 Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE is staging a huge protest in the city of Bitola against the signing of the deal.

VMRO-DPMNE is against accepting erga omnes for the name or the use of the name not only internationally but also at home, which requires constitutional changes. VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski urged Dimitrov to resign due to the “capitulation, which you think is a victory.”

For many in Macedonia the change of the name by authorities is tantamount to treason, and the loss of the country's identity and historical and cultural heritage.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said firmly he will not sign the deal after it is ratified in the parliament, which is expected soon with the aim of enabling Macedonia to carry out its obligations before the European Council meeting at the end of June, when the country expects to obtain a long-awaited date to launch EU accession talks. If Ivanov refuses to sign the deal, it will go on a second vote. However, top EU top officials have said that the signing of the deal by the president would not be crucial for Macedonia to obtain a date to start EU talks once it is ratified in the parliament.

Details revealed 

Ordinary Macedonians now have more information on the deal as on June 15, the government decided to declassify it and make it available for public.

Under the declassified deal, the Macedonian authorities are obliged to put explainers on monuments to Alexander the Great, of his father Philip and mother Olimpias and other monuments associated with antique Macedonia stating that they belong to Hellenic culture. All historical texts in school books that are disputed by the Greek side will have to be revised.

Articles in the Constitution which relate to the need of the country to take care of Macedonian minorities in neighbouring countries should also be removed.

These are, for many in Macedonia, some of most controversial parts of the agreement aside from erga omnes and the constitutional changes. There is a Macedonian minority in northern Greece which is almost totally assimilated after Greece gained the territory following the Second Balkan War, with the people there having no right to declare themselves as Macedonians by ethnicity or to speak the Macedonian language.

Decades-long conflict

The Macedonian-Greek dispute, which emerged after Macedonia declared independence from former Yugoslavia back in 1991, erupted because of fears in Athens that newly independent Macedonia might claim territories gained by Greece following the Second Balkan war in 1913. The Greek province of Macedonia spans most of the territories of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, and for more than five centuries it was part of the region known as Macedonia within the Ottoman Empire. 

The new name, which in Macedonian language is Severna Makedonija, will be translated and will be incorporated into the Constitution. The new name will make it clear that current Macedonia is not related to ancient Greece, allaying one of Athens’ chief concerns.

Following the ratification of the deal in the Macedonian parliament, Greece should send a letter to Nato to give the green light for its northern neighbour to be invited to become the 30th Alliance member, as well as to the European Council on the launch of EU accession talks.

However, the deal still has to be approved also by citizens in a “yes” or “no” referendum that will be called in autumn.

Following the referendum and the constitutional changes, Greece should ratify the deal at the end of the year.

Zaev said earlier that the agreement will strengthen the Macedonian national identity, which is one of the main concerns for local population. Under the deal, the nationality will be “Macedonian/citizen of North Macedonia” and the name of the language will remain “Macedonian” as well.

The implementation of the agreement will be conducted gradually in line with the opening of Macedonia’s EU’s negotiation chapters.