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Republic of Macedonia Approves Name Change In Step Toward Joining EU

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Republic of Macedonia Approves Name Change In Step Toward Joining EU

  • Republic of Macedonia’s lawmakers agree to amend constitution
  • Changing name is key condition for country to join EU, NATO

Demonstrators wave an old Macedonian flag during a protest against a process of renaming the country's name in front of the Parliament building in Skopje on Jan. 9.

Photographer: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

Photographer: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

The Republic of Macedonia cleared its biggest hurdle to membership in NATO and the European Union by passing an amendment to change its name and solve a decades-long dispute with Greece.

The parliamentary vote shifts the advantage to the West in a struggle for influence with Cold War foe Russia over the Balkans, Europe’s most volatile region. It also fulfills an agreement struck last year in which Greece pledged to lift its vetoes on the Balkan state’s bids to join the world’s largest trading bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in return for adopting a new name.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev won a two-thirds parliamentary majority Friday to rename the ex-Yugoslav country “The Republic of North Macedonia,” Speaker Talat Xhaferi said in Skopje. Now the baton passes to Athens, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces resistance from nationalist opponents over his pledge to ratify the deal and sign off on Macedonia’s NATO accession.

Read how Greece’s government is wobbling over the vote on Macedonia

“This is a big deal, even more significant at a time when there’s uncertainty in democracies in the West, in the future of Europe and in the role of the U.S.,” Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said by phone. “Tsipras has already taken the tough decisions in the political barbs by doing the agreement in the first place, so he’s got every incentive to follow through.”

Although his ruling coalition lacked sufficient votes, Zaev found backing among parties representing the country’s ethnic-Albanian minority and independents who defected from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which rejected the plan.

VMRO-DPMNE leader Hirstijan Mickoski urged Zaev to resign and call snap elections together with a planned presidential vote this year. The premier said such a move could delay reforms but the ruling coalition will discuss it.

“The ruling parties wish to hold elections, we know the polls and we know that if we hurry up, we can open a four-year term ahead,” Zaev said Saturday at a briefing streamed live from Skopje. “If we don’t at least consider the option, we won’t be serious politicians.”

Opponent Russia

Another opponent is Russia, which sees eastern Europe as its sphere of influence. It objects to NATO’s expansion into the Balkans and has accused the U.S. and the EU of helping force the name change.

The dispute centered on Greece’s insistence that the name "Macedonia" only applies to its northern province, the ancient stronghold of Alexander the Great. Tsipras, who called Zaev to congratulate him after the vote, faces a tough task to overcome his nationalist partners in the ruling coalition. They’ve threatened to leave the government if he manages to push through his part of the agreement.

EU and NATO leaders have urged both countries to quickly follow through, calling for a positive example in a region that’s still struggling to resolve grudges from the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Europe’s most deadly conflict since World War II.

"The EU strongly supports this agreement which sets an example of reconciliation for the region and Europe as a whole," EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in October that Macedonia’s accession talks may be completed by the end of January. On Friday, during a visit to Athens, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to detractors in the Greek government to back the deal.

"This is in all of our interests that this problem can be resolved, that the western Balkan region can stabilize,” she told reporters. "We’ve never been as close to resolving this question as we are now."

— With assistance by Elizabeth Konstantinova

(Updates with snap election option from sixth paragraph.)