The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia reached a preliminary deal with neighboring Greece to end a decades-long dispute over its name, unblocking its path to joining the European Union and NATO.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he reached an agreement with his counterpart Zoran Zaev on Tuesday. The new name for the former Yugoslav state will be the Republic of North Macedonia, they said at separate news conferences in Athens and Skopje, their capitals. Both must find support in their parliaments to support the deal.
The agreement may open the way for the Balkan country of 2 million people to start the membership process for both the world’s largest trading bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After Athens stymied its neighbor for years, the breakthrough came after Zaev’s government took power a year ago to jump-start UN-mediated negotiations over the name, which Greece believes to be a territorial claim on its northern province called Macedonia.
“We have a historic, centennial decision,” Zaev said in a live web stream. “We strongly believe that the European Union Council on June 28 will decide to start accession talks with the Republic of Macedonia. We strongly believe that at the NATO summit on July 12 in Brussels, Macedonia will receive an invitation for membership.”
Tsipras said his country would support both of Zaev’s wishes, pending the successful revision of its northern neighbor’s constitution.
The accord “will certainly open Macedonia’s way first to NATO, then to EU talks,” Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said by phone from Sofia. “The question is when will this happen because there are still hard times ahead.”
Both leaders may face an uphill battle in approving the deal. In Greece, the talks have sparked confrontation between the embattled Tsipras and his main coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, whose leader and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos reiterated on Tuesday his party won’t back any agreement that includes the term “Macedonia.” The main opposition party, New Democracy, has also refused to back any name agreement so far, which will force Tsipras to seek support among other parties in parliament.
Zaev said his country will hold a national referendum in the fall on the agreement. He has to muster a two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the country’s constitution. Zaev didn’t rule out holding a snap vote with the referendum this year or with presidential elections in 2019. He has accused his predecessor, nationalist leader Nikola Gruevski, of deliberately fueling the rift with Greece. President Gjorge Ivanov, supported by Gruevski’s party VMRO-DPMNE, said any deal shouldn’t involve a constitutional revision.
Bulgaria, which shares a centuries-old history of disputes with its two neighbors, demanded that the Athens-Skopje accord guarantees there will be no territorial claims and interference in its domestic affairs, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on both countries to finalize the agreement, which he said would put the Republic of Macedonia on the path to NATO membership and consolidate peace in the western Balkans, according to a statement. European Union President Donald Tusk congratulated the leaders of the neighboring states, while signaling that more work was needed to finish the deal.
EU’s foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini called on the European Council to endorse the Commission’s recommendation to open accession talks with Skopje in June.
“This is not only merited, in recognition of the considerable reform results of the country, but it will contribute crucially to the full implementation of the agreement in the interest of both countries, of the region and of our Union as a whole,” Mogherini said in a statement.
— With assistance by Elizabeth Konstantinova, Deana Kjuka, and Eleni Chrepa