Macedonia close to crucial parliament vote on name deal constitutional changes

Macedonia close to crucial parliament vote on name deal constitutional changes
The upcoming vote will determine whether the breakthrough Prespa agreement signed in June 2018 will be implemented. / Влада на Република Македонија
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje January 8, 2019

Macedonia is just days away from the crucial vote in the parliament on constitutional amendments on changing the country’s name that will open the way for it to become part of Nato and launch EU accession negotiations. 

The outcome of the vote is still unclear despite determined efforts by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to secure the required two-thirds majority that will allow the implementation of the “name deal” signed with Greece in June 2018. 

The vote is the last hurdle for Macedonia in the process of implementing the historic Prespa agreement with Greece, which ended a decades-long dispute between the two neighbours, which had blocked Macedonia’s EU and Nato integration processes. Greece objected to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province, gained following the Balkan wars, with the same name, and feared irredentism. Under the agreement, the country will be renamed North Macedonia.

The Macedonian parliament adopted the amendments in principle in October, after Social Democrat leader Zaev managed to secure a two-thirds majority in the 120-seat parliament at the last moment, supported by eight opposition lawmakers.

Parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi has scheduled the plenary session on the constitutional changes for January 9, when the final vote on the amendments, of which the key one is the change of the country’s name to North Macedonia, will take place.

However, Zaev whose cabinet’s priority is the country’s EU and Nato integration, faces a number of challenges to muster again the two-thirds majority needed for the changes to be voted in.

Whatever it takes 

“I’ll do whatever is needed to secure a two-thirds majority in the parliament for the constitutional changes,” Zaev said recently.

Zaev has already made concessions to opposition lawmakers by adopting an amnesty law to pardon some of those accused over the parliament violence in April 2017, who include several opposition MPs, with the aim of boosting votes in favour of the changes. Eight MPs from the opposition coalition, who voted for the changes in the first round of voting and were expelled from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party as a result, are expected to support the changes. 

The amnesty law was widely criticised by the public, as Macedonians expected those involved in violent incident, in which some 100 people were injured, to be punished. Inmates in Skopje prison went on hunger strike in late 2018 demanding that the amnesty be extended to those convicted for other crimes. 

Among the injured was Zaev himself, at the time an opposition leader and MP during the political vacuum when Macedonia was without a government for several months following early elections. Despite this, Zaev decided to “forgive” the attackers and allowed some of those involved in the incident to be pardoned. However, the law will not pardon the organisers of the violent protest or those directly involved in violent attacks.

Opposition on several fronts 

The main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has decided to boycott the vote on constitutional changes in its final stage. VMRO-DPMNE, while saying that it wants EU and Nato integration, is against the deal, which it calls “humiliating”.

“The process for constitutional amendments and the debate over them is a farce, and VMRO-DPMNE's deputies will not participate in the third and final stage of the process,” the party’s leader Hristijan Mickoski said recently.

On top of this, small ethnic Albanian parties Besa and the Alliance for Albanians, which supported the constitutional amendments in the first round of voting, later conditioned the final vote on several demands in the interest of their ethnic minority. Both parties have four MPs.

Besa's conditions for a yes vote include removing the term “Macedonian” before “citizens of North Macedonia” in the clause on citizenship. They also want the fact that the Albanian language is recognised as official alongside the Macedonian language to be included in the Constitution.

Ethnic Albanians constitute a quarter of the 2.1mn population of Macedonia, but are constantly struggling for more rights and want to be on an equal footing with the ethnic Macedonian majority.

Over to Athens 

If adopted in the final reading, the name deal would then have to be approved by the Greek parliament. The amendments will be valid only if Greece ratifies the agreement and lifts its objections to the country’s EU and Nato integration. Getting the deal through the Greek parliament is also likely to be challenging. 

The deal was signed by the foreign ministers of the two countries Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kotzias. Kotzias resigned later amid pressure from the Greek opposition, which rejected the deal and does not want Greece’s northern neighbour to use the term Macedonia at all in the new name.

For Dimitrov, this is “an historic moment, which requires great wisdom, responsibility and a vision of all stakeholders of the process.”

“I am convinced that most citizens on both sides will ask the question in a few years — why we did not do this earlier?" said Dimitrov in an interview with MIA.

Meanwhile, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg is pressuring the Macedonian authorities to adopt the amendments by mid-January and for the whole process including the ratification by the Greek parliament to end by mid-February.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Athens on January 10-11, which according to Greek media is a reminder that western governments are keen to see the Greek parliament ratify the name deal.

“A rejection of the deal by the Greek parliament would be seen as a defeat by the allies, while Athens would become the black sheep of the transatlantic alliance,” Kathimerini commented recently.

Greek government spokesperson Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will decide when to submit the name deal for ratification in the parliament after January 18. Nato wants the process to end as soon as possible.

A top US official said on December 4 that Macedonia could join Nato by mid-2020 if it implements the name agreement with Greece.

Macedonian Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska said recently that the Nato accession protocol will be drafted immediately after the ratification of Prespa agreement by both parties.

Macedonian was invited to join Nato on in July 2018 on the condition it implements the name deal with Greece. Until the name deal was signed, Greece constantly blocked Macedonia’s EU and Nato integration processes.