Macedonia reached a diplomatic agreement with Greece to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a 27 year-long dispute that started when Macedonia declared independence in 1991. The agreement will be put to the popular vote in a referendum later in the year within Macedonia. Previously, Greece and international bodies like the EU and NATO had referred to the country as Skopje, after the Macedonian capital, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Both the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the more recently elected Macedonian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, made settlement of the dispute a priority. Both leaders are part of left-leaning governments and have generally taken an anti-nationalist position in favor of negotiations and diplomacy.
Unsurprisingly, both Tsipras and Zaev hailed the agreement as a success. “After months of negotiation we have managed to reach a deal that will solve our longstanding difference over the name of our neighbour,” said Tsipras. He continued, “The deal that we have reached for the first time ensures that they do not have, and in the future can never claim, any relationship to the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia. I am deeply convinced that this agreement is a great diplomatic victory, but also a historic opportunity.” Zaev told reporters at a press conference that the deal would preserve Macedonian ethnic and cultural identity, as the country’s language and people would still be referred to as Macedonian.
Other important figures expressed support for the agreement. NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said in a statement, “This historic agreement is testament to many years of patient diplomacy, and to the willingness of these two leaders to solve a dispute which has affected the region for too long.” He continued, “I now call on both countries to finalize the agreement reached by the two leaders. This will set Skopje on its path to NATO membership. And it will help to consolidate peace and stability across the wider Western Balkans.” Matthew Niemetz, the U.S. diplomat who brokered the most recent negotiations and has been working on the issue since 1994, congratulated the leaders on reaching an agreement. “I have no doubt this agreement will lead to a period of enhanced relations between the two neighbouring countries and especially between their people,” he said.
However, support for the agreement was not universal. Protests over the compromise have already occurred in both Macedonia and Greece. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the opposition leader in Greece, argued that the deal amounted to Greece accepting the existence of a Macedonian language and nation. Additional nationalist backlash to the deal is anticipated in the coming weeks.
However, based on the available information, this deal seems to be an important step in the right direction. Improved relations between Macedonia and Greece will improve the international community’s opinion of both nations, and the agreement itself is a testament to the potential for diplomacy to end long-standing disputes and conflicts.
The dispute’s origins trace back to 1991, when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia and chose its new name. However, a Greek province bordering Macedonia was already named Macedonia prior to independence, creating fears of the newly independent Macedonia attempting to claim Greece’s territory as its own. Additionally, Greece has accused the country of appropriating its ancient cultural heritage with the name Macedonia. As a result of the long-standing dispute, Greece has continually blocked Macedonian attempts to join the EU and NATO, which may change with the new deal.
In conclusion, the new deal has the potential to improve relations between the two countries and open the door to Macedonian integration with the rest of Europe. However, what remains to be seen is whether the deal will be approved by both countries. In order for the name change to take place, the agreement must pass a referendum in Macedonia and be approved by the parliaments of both countries. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the deal will succeed. The Macedonian President, backed by the nationalist opposition, recently declared he intends to veto the deal, and the opposition party has enough seats in the Macedonian parliament to prevent the deal from gaining the necessary two-thirds majority to pass. Additionally, in Greece, the main opposition party may submit a vote of no-confidence against the Tsipras government over the deal. Ultimately, only time will tell if the agreement is hailed as a diplomatic success or a failed attempt at reconciliation.
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