Greece Ratifies New Name For Neighbor: North Macedonia

On January 25, Greece ratified an agreement that puts an end to a 28-year dispute over the use of the name “Macedonia”.  The Greek Parliament voted 153 to 146 to ratify the Prespa Agreement, under which their neighboring country’s name will be changed to the Republic of North Macedonia, and Greece will lift its objections to North Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.  The ratified name change deal aims to create peace in the Balkans but has been divisive within Greek society and politics.


Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who helped negotiate the agreement, has faced a lot of opposition, including the loss of his parliamentary majority.  The ratification followed two days of debate, during which New Democracy party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated that the agreement “is a national defeat … a national blunder that is an affront to the truth and history of our country” and members of parliament from the far-right Golden Dawn Party shouted “traitors” and “no to treason” during the vote.  The name change agreement faced opposition from the public, with polls showing that more than 60% of Greeks oppose the deal.  Demonstrations were held across the country in the lead up to the January 25 vote, with tens of thousands of protesters showing up on January 20 to a rally in Athens that turned violent when they tried to storm parliament.


On the other hand, European leaders have been very supportive of the deal.  Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel said at a news conference that she is “convinced that the solution will benefit Greece, North Macedonia, the stability in western Balkans and European Union” and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the agreement “an important contribution to the stability and prosperity of the whole region.”  Tspiras and Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev both demonstrated on social media their positive outlook now that the agreement has been ratified by both countries. Tspiras tweeted that “Today we write a new page for the Balkans. The hatred of nationalism, dispute, and conflict will be replaced by friendship, peace, and cooperation” and he was congratulated by Zaev who tweeted “together with our peoples we reached a historic victory. Long live the Prespa Agreement! For eternal peace and progress of the Balkans and in Europe!”  Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, also praised Tspiras and Zaev on Twitter, saying “They had imagination, they took the risk, they were ready to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good… Mission impossible accomplished.”


The Macedonia name dispute has been ongoing for decades, and so it shows great leadership from Tspiras and Zaev that they were able to work together to negotiate the Prespa Agreement.  The political resolution of the dispute allows for future cooperation between the countries and for North Macedonia to be more involved at the international level, with the country now able to move forward in joining NATO and the EU.       


The ratification of the Prespa Agreement resolves the name dispute that began in 1991 when the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia claimed the name after declaring independence from Yugoslavia.  The Greeks have opposed this use of the name because of the implications of a territorial claim to the Greek province of Macedonia as well as the infringement on Greek culture and heritage. According to Dimitris Christopoulos, professor of political science at Panteion University in Athens, “the use of ‘Macedonia’ by our northern neighbor is like a historical theft committed against ‘Greekness’.”  Because of this, Greece has vetoed Macedonia joining NATO and the EU. The dispute was at a stalemate until the signing of the Prespa Agreement in June 2018. The Macedonia Parliament already voted to approve the name change earlier this month, and the changes will be fully implemented now that Greece has ratified the agreement as well.      


The Prespa Agreement resolves the historical conflict of the name dispute and will help contribute to stability in the Balkans.  However, the Prespa Agreement is still very polarizing, with polling showing that a majority of Greeks are against the deal- as demonstrated by the strong nationalist attitudes, the amount of protesting and the narrow victory in parliament.  Although the dispute has been solved at the international level, there is still the potential for ethnic disputes to arise. The agreement does contain recognition of the difference between Macedonian citizens and the cultural and historical context of Macedonia, so hopefully as the agreement is implemented its opponents will see that fears of cultural appropriation won’t come true.  However, there is still work to be done on the public opinion and acceptance of the name changes before the dispute is fully resolved.