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Debate over renaming nation enters final days in Macedonia

January 9, 2019
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Opponents to the change of the country's constitutional name protest outside the parliament building prior to a session of the Macedonian Parliament in the capital Skopje, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Macedonian lawmakers are entering the last phase of debate on constitutional changes to rename their country North Macedonia as part of a deal with neighboring Greece to pave the way for NATO membership and eventually joining the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonian lawmakers entered the final stretch Wednesday of renaming their country North Macedonia, part of a deal with neighboring Greece that would smooth the small Balkan country’s path to NATO membership in return.

The agreement, reached in June after almost three decades of acrimony, has caused political turmoil in Macedonia and Greece. Opponents in both countries say it includes too many concessions to the other side.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he would seek its ratification in parliament this month despite strong opposition within his governing coalition.

Tsipras said in a TV interview Wednesday that if his junior coalition partner withdraws its support over the Macedonia deal, he would seek a government confidence vote before the agreement comes to parliament.

The deal is intended to end a long dispute over the Macedonia name, one bitter enough for Greece to block the former Yugoslav republic from joining international organizations such as NATO and the European Union.

Greece bitterly fought its young neighbor’s use of the name when it gained independence, saying it implied territorial claims on its own Macedonia province and on ancient Greek heritage.

In Macedonia’s capital Wednesday, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told lawmakers debating the constitutional changes needed to rename the country that the agreement his government signed recognizes Macedonian national identity and language.

“This is an historic and patriotic choice. We can be the generation that has made a bold decision,” Zaev said.

The debate was adjourned until Thursday and is expected to last until Friday.

Macedonia’s center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party boycotted the debate. Leader Hristijan Mickoski and other party lawmakers joined several hundred protesters outside who called the deal “treason.”

The constitutional amendments are expected to pass nonetheless. Aleksandar Kiracovski, secretary general of the coalition government’s Social Democrats, said the government had secured enough votes to reach the two-thirds support required for passage.

Along with formalizing the name change, the amendments to the preamble and four articles of the constitution states North Macedonia has no ambitions on adjacent territory and is committed to good neighborly relations.

Macedonia’s parliament is also expected to add a provision in the amendment legislation stating the constitutional changes would not be valid until Greece’s parliament ratifies the agreement and endorses NATO protocols for making North Macedonia a member.

Greece’s Tsipras said in an interview with private Open TV that once his country receives formal notice of the Macedonian parliament’s vote on the amendments, he would “immediately” launch the process of ratification in the Greek parliament.

He said he expected lawmakers to approve the deal, even if his right-wing coalition partner, the small Independent Greeks party, refused to back it. Without the Independent Greeks’ support, Tsipras would lose his parliamentary majority.

Tsipras said he would meet the Independent Greeks leader, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, on Friday to seek a commitment for the party’s continued support. If Kammenos refuses, Tsipras said, he would seek a confidence vote before any debate on the Macedonia agreement.

He added that if his government survives the confidence vote but is unable to assemble a parliamentary majority with support from other opposition lawmakers, he will call a national election earlier than scheduled time in October.

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Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this story.

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