Mace­do­nia tus­sle threat­ens Greece’s gov­ern­ment

A cru­cial party says it is with­draw­ing from the coali­tion be­cause of a neigh­bor­ing coun­try’s new name.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Maria Petrakis Petrakis is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

ATHENS — The fu­ture of the Greek gov­ern­ment was thrown into ques­tion Sun­day after the de­fense min­is­ter an­nounced he was quit­ting and with­draw­ing his party from the rul­ing coali­tion to protest a pend­ing agree­ment with neigh­bor­ing Mace­do­nia over its name.

In June, Greece agreed to drop its op­po­si­tion to the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia join­ing NATO and the Euro­pean Union if Mace­do­nia changed its name to “the Repub­lic of North Mace­do­nia.”

The de­fense min­is­ter, Panos Kam­menos, the leader of the In­de­pen­dent Greeks party, ar­gues that any new name should elim­i­nate the word “Mace­do­nia,” a view that re­flects pop­u­lar opin­ion in Greece, which has a re­gion called Mace­do­nia.

His party holds just seven of the 300 seats in Par­lia­ment, but its al­liance with Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras’ party, Syriza, which holds 145 seats, has made it a cru­cial part of the coali­tion that has gov­erned Greece for the last four years.

Tsipras said Sun­day that he had asked Par­lia­ment to hold a vote of con­fi­dence, which will prob­a­bly take place on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.

“We will im­me­di­ately move to the process out­lined by the con­sti­tu­tion for the re­newal of the con­fi­dence in my gov­ern­ment,” Tsipras said after meet­ing with Kam­menos in Athens. “We have crit­i­cal leg­isla­tive work and in­ter­ven­tions to do.”

His gov­ern­ment said it is con­fi­dent that some mem­bers of Kam­menos’ party will con­tinue to of­fer their sup­port and help it win the 151 votes it needs to serve out its term, which ends in Oc­to­ber. A vote of no-con­fi­dence would al­most cer­tainly force ear­lier elec­tions.

The dis­pute over the name be­gan in earnest in 1991, when the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia emerged from the col­lapse of Yu­goslavia.

It sparked an im­me­di­ate cri­sis. The Greek prime min­is­ter at that time fired his for­eign min­is­ter, who went on to form his own party, which at­tracted enough de­fec­tors from the prime min­is­ter’s party to play a ma­jor role in bring­ing down his gov­ern­ment.

The re­gion of Mace­do­nia in Greece in­cludes Thes­sa­loniki, the na­tion’s sec­ond­biggest city and one of its largest ports.

Com­pound­ing the in­sult, the new repub­lic re­named its main air­port “Alexan­der the Great” in 2006, a move seen by Greeks as claim­ing the her­itage of the an­cient Greek king, who hailed from the an­cient re­gion of Mace­do­nia and set out from there to con­quer the known world. The name was dropped last year in a good­will ges­ture.

The agree­ment hashed out last sum­mer on the shores of Lake Prespa, which spans the bor­der be­tween Greece and the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia, re­ceived sup­port from the U.S. and much of Europe, which saw it as a way to stem Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

The agree­ment “will ben­e­fit North Mace­do­nia, Greece and the Euro­pean Union,” Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel said last week on a visit to Athens. “I am deeply con­vinced of this.”

The new name would be used both in­ter­na­tion­ally and bi­lat­er­ally, so that the coun­tries that rec­og­nize Mace­do­nia would have to change their recog­ni­tion to North Mace­do­nia.

But rat­i­fy­ing the ac­cord has not gone smoothly.

In Greece, thou­sands of pro­test­ers ral­lied against it in Athens and Thes­sa­loniki, chant­ing that there was only one Mace­do­nia and that it was Greek.

In the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia, par­tic­i­pants in a non­bind­ing ref­er­en­dum over­whelm­ingly fa­vored the name change, but turnout fell far short of the 50% needed to ap­prove it. Among the op­po­nents is the pres­i­dent, Gjorge Ivanov, who has said the agree­ment vi­o­lates the coun­try’s sovereignty.

That didn’t stop Prime Min­is­ter Zo­ran Zaev from scrap­ing to­gether a ma­jor­ity of law­mak­ers last week to ap­prove chang­ing the con­sti­tu­tion to re­name Mace­do­nia.

Now the is­sue de­pends on Greece, where the Par­lia­ment must ap­prove the agree­ment. Tsipras said that he ex­pects a vote to be held by the end of the month, and his gov­ern­ment be­lieves it has the 151 votes needed to pass it.

Even be­fore the po­lit­i­cal devel­op­ments Sun­day, an­other mass rally was planned in Athens next Sun­day to op­pose the ac­cord.

For his part, Tsipras has said get­ting the agree­ment through Par­lia­ment will be his most im­por­tant achieve­ment after end­ing a se­ries of fi­nan­cial bailouts that have kept Greece in the Euro­zone at the cost of pen­sion and wage cuts and higher taxes.

“It is a bur­den on our for­eign pol­icy,” he said in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view last week. “There is no rea­son for us to have this open front with our neigh­bor.”

An­ge­los Tzortzi­nis AFP/Getty Images

“WE HAVE crit­i­cal leg­isla­tive work and in­ter­ven­tions to do,” Greek Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras said after meet­ing with his de­fense min­is­ter, who re­signed.

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