Greece and Macedonia reach deal in 27-year dispute over name

Greece and Macedonia reached a historic agreement Tuesday to end a bitter 27-year name dispute that had kept the smaller and younger country out of international institutions such as NATO.

Agreement to be signed on the weekend, voter referendum to follow in the fall

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced Tuesday in the capital, Skopje, that he and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had reached an agreement to end a 27-year dispute over the smaller country's name. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

Greece and Macedonia reached a historic agreement Tuesday to end a bitter 27-year name dispute that had kept the smaller and younger country out of international institutions such as NATO, the two countries' prime ministers announced.

Greece's Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia's Zoran Zaev said the former Yugoslav republic's new name for both domestic and international purposes would be Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Macedonia will also amend its constitution to reflect the change as part of the deal.

The nationality of the country's citizens will be listed on official documents as "Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of Macedonia."

'A clear distinction'

NATO and European Union officials welcomed the breakthrough, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said would help consolidate regional peace and stability. 

Greece had long demanded that its northern neighbour change or modify its name to avoid any claim to the territory and ancient heritage of the region in northern Greece named Macedonia — birthplace of ancient warrior king Alexander the Great. 

The current prime ministers' attempts to end the dispute have faced dissent in both countries, leading to large protests by opponents of a compromise, threatening to split Greece's governing coalition and provoking a rift between Macedonia's prime minister and president. 

Last week in Pella, Greece, protesters opposed the use of the name 'Macedonia' in any solution to the dispute between Athens and Skopje. (Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters)

And main opposition parties in both countries rejected the agreement. 

Zaev said the deal would be signed this weekend, and a voter referendum would be held in the fall. 

In a televised address, Tsipras said the 140 countries which had recognized the Balkan state simply as Macedonia would now recognize it as Republic of Northern Macedonia. 

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

Speaking at a news conference in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Zaev described the deal as a "historic agreement of the century." 

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

On the timeline of the deal, Tsipras said that it would be first signed by the two countries' foreign ministers and then ratified by Macedonia's parliament. 

Greece will then back invitations for Macedonia to join NATO and start negotiations on joining the EU. However, Tsipras said, this will be contingent on Macedonia completing the constitutional changes. 

"In other words, if the constitutional amendment is not successfully completed, then the invitation to join NATO will be automatically rescinded and the accession talks with the European Union will not start," he said. 

EU welcomes deal

The deal was welcomed by EU officials. 

European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted his "sincere congratulations" to Tsipras and Zaev. "I am keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to you, the impossible is becoming possible," he said. 

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and commissioner Johannes Hahn issued a joint statement congratulating the two prime ministers "in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of southeast Europe." 

They said they looked forward to accession negotiations beginning with Skopje in June. 

However, both prime ministers faced dissent at home. 

A bronze statue of Alexander the Great can be seen in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, Greece. Tsipras had sought to protect Greece's region of Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great, but the Greek coalition partner has vowed to vote against the proposed agreement. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, whose right-wing Independent Greeks party is Tsipras' governing coalition  partner, said he would oppose an agreement in a parliamentary vote, meaning the left-wing prime minister will need to seek support from political opponents. 

In Skopje, meanwhile, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said earlier in the day that he remained opposed to writing the new name into the constitution, a move intended to show the change is permanent and binding for domestic and international use. 

The main opposition party in Macedonia, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, accused Zaev of "capitulating" to Greece. 

"In essence, the [deal] is acceptance of all Greek positions," VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said. 

In Athens, conservative main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged Tsipras not to go ahead with the agreement.

"This is a bad agreement that is in conflict with the majority of the Greek people," he said. 

Organizers of past rallies in Greece's main cities against a compromise with Macedonia also expressed outrage at the deal, with one accusing Tsipras of "high treason." 

"He was Skopje's best negotiator," Michael Patsikas told The Associated Press.