Fri, 19 Oct 2018

Decades-long dispute between Greece and Macedonia to end

By Sheetal Sukhija, Europe News
13 Jun 2018, 05:45 GMT+10

ATHENS, Greece - Greece and Macedonia managed to achieve a breakthrough on Tuesday, after both the country’s agreed to rename the Balkan country “North Macedonia.” 

The decision, which could end a bitter 27-year-old dispute between both the nations, was also made after Greece vowed to lift its veto on its northern neighbour joining the European Union and and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev reportedly held a telephonic conversation, after which the decision was made.

The decision puts an end to a bitter dispute that both the countries have been locked in for 27 years now, that has led to years of protests and endless diplomacy.

As part of the agreement, Macedonia’s name would be changed to the Republic of North Macedonia, or Severna Makedonija in Macedonian and the English name could be used as well as the Slavic term.

The name was chosen to reflect the existence of the Greek region of Macedonia on the other side of the border and the cultural claim by Greeks. 

The countries announced that the new name would be used both internally by the government and externally when conducting foreign affairs and in return, Greece would lift its vetoes on the country joining the EU and NATO.

Announcing the agreement in a television press conference after giving details of the deal to the Greek president, Tsipras said, “The name change will be implemented not only in the country's international relations but also domestically.”

Tsipras added that the 140 countries which had recognized the Balkan state simply as Macedonia would now recognize it as Republic of Northern Macedonia.

He said, “This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors and puts an end to the irredentism which their current constitutional name implies,” adding that Macedonia “cannot and will not be able in the future to claim any connection with the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia.”

Meanwhile, describing the deal as a “historic agreement of the century,” the Macedonian Prime Minister called on the opposition to back the name change.

He said, “We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute ... that has been drowning the country,” adding that the deal “will strengthen the Macedonian identity.”

He urged for support by pointing out that the agreement would guarantee access to the EU and NATO.

However, the deal struck on Tuesday still has a few hurdles to cross as nationalists in both countries are opposed to compromise, which could still derail the accord. 

The agreement would now have to be ratified by the parliaments in both the countries.

Further, Macedonia is also expected to hold a referendum on the name change.

Earlier in the day, the Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said that he remained opposed to a constitutional change that would likely be included in the draft deal, to provide an assurance that the name change was permanent and binding for domestic and international use.

The left-wing Greek Prime Minister could seek support from political opponents since the right-wing Independent Greeks party, which is in the Prime Minister’s governing coalition partner, has said it would oppose the agreement in a parliamentary vote.

Earlier this month, thousands protested the deal in about 25 Greek cities.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in a joint statement, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said, “We wholeheartedly congratulate Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev for their determination and leadership in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe. This achievement belongs to the leaders of the two countries and their teams, but first and foremost it belongs to all the citizens of both countries, and of Europe as a whole.”

The statement added that they expected the European Council, which will meet later this month, to endorse the European Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations with the EU candidate state.

Further, European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted his “sincere congratulations” to Tsipras and Zaev. 

He wrote, “I am keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to you, the impossible is becoming possible.”

The dispute emerged after the country gained independence in 1991 from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and chose to name itself Macedonia, irking Greece.

Greece, suspecting its northern neighbour of territorial ambitions, objected to the use of the name.

The country argued that the name Macedonia was shared by the ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander of Macedon, and is also used by a northern region of Greece that includes the country's second city Thessaloniki. 

Subsequently, owing to Greece’s strong objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN only under the provisional name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) even though over 100 other countries recognise it as Macedonia.

However, causing the dispute to grow further, Macedonians named the main airport in the capital, Skopje, after Ancient Greek hero Alexander the Great.

In 2011, the country erected an eight-storey high statue resembling Alexander in its capital city of Skopje, which further infuriated its neighbor.

Macedonia however, insisted that the statue is of a “warrior on a horse” rather than the ancient Greek hero.

Over the years, a number of alternatives have been suggested by both sides, which have included Gorna Makedonija (Upper Macedonia), Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia) and Ilinden Macedonia.

Then, in February this year, indicating that it wanted to put an end to the dispute, as a goodwill gesture, the Macedonian government renamed its airport "International airport Skopje" and the Alexander the Great motorway as simply "Friendship.”

Now, officials have said that the agreement is set to be formally signed on Saturday at Lake Prespa.

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