Mace­do­nia OKs deal to call self North Mace­do­nia

Vote paves way to NATO and bet­ter ties with Greece

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Konstantin Testorides and Ni­cholas Paphitis

SKOPJE, Mace­do­nia — Mace­do­nia late Fri­day ful­filled its part of a his­toric deal that will pave its way to NATO mem­ber­ship and nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with neigh­bor­ing Greece, af­ter law­mak­ers ap­proved con­sti­tu­tional changes to re­name the coun­try North Mace­do­nia.

The move was hailed by NATO and the Euro­pean Union, which had lob­bied heav­ily for Mace­do­nia to back the agree­ment de­spite strong crit­i­cism from the coun­try’s main op­po­si­tion party, and by Greece’s prime min­is­ter who has in­vested heav­ily in the deal.

All 81 Mace­do­nian law­mak­ers present for the par­lia­men­tary vote backed the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments. The re­main­ing 39 op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers in the 120-seat house stayed away in protest.

Prime Min­is­ter Zo­ran Zaev told law­mak­ers the deal was a “tough” but nec­es­sary de­ci­sion for his coun­try. The vote fol­lowed in­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Zaev’s cen­ter-left coali­tion and some op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers, who had ini­tially agreed to back the agree­ment but raised last­minute ob­jec­tions.

“A bet­ter deal could not be reached, and with­out an agree­ment with Greece there will be no NATO and Euro­pean Union (mem­ber­ship),” Zaev said.

The agree­ment on chang­ing the name comes af­ter a 27-year dis­pute with Greece, which com­plained that this small, land­locked coun­try call­ing it­self Mace­do­nia im­plied claims on Greece’s own ter­ri­tory and cul­tural her­itage. Mace­do­nian lead­ers de­nied that.

The deal en­coun­tered strong op­po­si­tion on both sides of the bor­der, with crit­ics on each side say­ing it of­fered too many con­ces­sions to the other side.

NATO l eader Jens Stoltenberg said the al­liance strongly sup­ports the full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the agree­ment, un­der which Greece will lift its ob­jec­tions to Mace­do­nia join­ing NATO and the EU.

Stoltenberg said in a tweet Fri­day that the agree­ment is “an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to a sta­ble and pros­per­ous re­gion.”

The West sees Mace­do­nia’s NATO ac­ces­sion as a key step to­ward lim­it­ing Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the re­gion. For the agree­ment t o come i nto ef­fect, Greece’s par­lia­ment must now con­vene in com­ing weeks to rat­ify it — a tricky task for Greek Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras who faces strong op­po­si­tion to the agree­ment from his ju­nior coali­tion part­ner.

Tsipras spoke with Zaev on Fri­day to con­grat­u­late him af­ter the vote, the Greek prime min­is­ter’s of­fice said.

Hun­dreds of Mace­do­nian op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers protested peace­fully in front of par­lia­ment for a third day, de­mand­ing early elec­tions and the dis­so­lu­tion of par­lia­ment. They greeted the vote re­sult with cries of “traitors.”

Con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion leader Hrist­jan Mick­oski ac­cused Zaev’s gov­ern­ment of “black­mail­ing” law­mak­ers. Mick­oski told re­porters the con­sti­tu­tional changes were ap­proved against the de­sires of the Mace­do­nian peo­ple.

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