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Macedonia, the longstanding name dispute has (probably) been overcome. Skopje and Athens are closer now

The Premiers Tsipras and Zaev have jointly decided that the new name of the Balkan Country will be “Republic of North Macedonia.” But it’s necessary to convince the respective parliaments and citizens. The “NO”-stance of Macedonian President Ivanov, the enthusiasm of the EU, UN and NATO. Mogherini: green light to adhesion negotiations with Skopje

Stretta di mano tra il premier greco Alexis Tsipras (a destra) e l'omologo macedone Zoran Zaev

Republic of North Macedonia will be the new name of Macedonia accepted by Greece, the age-old enemy, provided that the agreement reached by Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev is approved by the respective Countries. European Council President Donald Tusk, tweeted: “Thanks to you the impossible is becoming possible.” He issued a joint statement with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, describing it as a “unique opportunity to relaunch the wider Western Balkan region’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration.” If the agreement is successfully ratified – which cannot be taken for granted, with opponents in both countries deriding the accord – Skopje will be able to continue its journey towards Brussels. The first results are expected at the European Council of late June, when it will be decided whether to approve the opening of negotiations for Macedonia and Albania. In this case, the green light of Greece will be indispensable. And while the European path is long, Macedonia’s accession to NATO could take place in the short term: it will probably be known by the end of summer.

Convincing fellow-citizens. The international community lauded the two Premiers for reaching a historic agreement, but many people in Skopje and Athens were not as happy. “The reason is that both sides had to make significant concessions, thus while the agreement is a highly significant step with a historical bearing, it’s premature to cry victory”, the expert in Balkan issues, journalist for Bloomberg TV Bulgaria Nikolay Krastev told SIR.

“Now Tsipras and Zaev are faced with an equally demanding challenge, namely, they must convince their fellow-citizens that the agreement is indispensable and that it will benefit everyone.”

In Macedonia the President of the Republic, Gjorge Ivanov, member of the opposition nationalist party Vmro-Dpmne, has already announced that he will not sign the agreement that he considers “detrimental to the Macedonian people”, “a victory for the Greeks” and a “step back on the positions of Skopje”, with reference to the part of the agreement stating that “the new name should be used by all countries for all purposes, i.e. “erga omnes”, for international and domestic use.”

Alexander the Great. “The Macedonians wanted a name that would meet the claims of the Greeks but they also hoped to continue to using the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’. However, Athens did not agree”, Krastev pointed out. Another controversy involves removing from the Constitution the text which mentions protection of Macedonian minorities outside the territory of the country and the claim that Skopje carries part of the heritage of Alexander the Great. In fact the new agreement clearly states that the people of North Macedonia have no relation to ancient Greek civilization and their language is part of the Slavic family, unrelated to ancient Greek heritage. “The truth is that Zaev risks early elections if the referendum on the name, set for next autumn, is unsuccessful, given that a turnout of at least 50% of eligible voters is required”, underlined the Balkan expert. Problems are also expected in Greece where protestors took to the streets in 25 cities, while one of the government coalition parties voiced its opposition to the accord.

European horizon. Besides the UN special envoy Matthew Nimetz, EU and NATO have played a crucial role in the negotiations. Without the Euro-Atlantic perspective and international pressure, Tsipras and Zaev would not have had more meetings in 2018 than in the previous 27 years.

“An achievement and a historic agreement between the two countries, which belongs to all the citizens of both countries, and of Europe as a whole.”

declared EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn in a joint statement. “The negotiating process, under the auspices of the United Nations and with the European Union’s strong support, is also clear proof of the power of multilateral diplomacy, dialogue, respect and willingness to find win-win solutions to even the most difficult of issues”, they said.

Pro and against. “It’s a window of opportunity we must seize with courage, it’s the only patriotic way”, declared Macedonian Premier Zoran Zaev. “We can’t  back down: accession to NATO and the EU are at stake.” Greek PM Alexis Tsipras underlined that “the requests of Athens have been met”, although his opponents, that include famous Greek composer Mikis Teodorakis, won’t accept a name that includes the word Macedonia because “Macedonia has been and always will be Greek.” Thus in Greece the Parliament will have the last word on the issue while Macedonia will decide with a referendum. “A hot summer lies ahead – Krastev concluded – but I hope that under the pressure of international powers we will be able to leave behind a decades-long dispute. The Balkans need examples of peace-building and stability achieved through dialogue.”

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