Macedonian parliament agrees to change country's name, paving way to EU membership

The former Yugoslav republic will now be named Republic of North Macedonia, a move that formally ends a 27-year dispute with Greece.

Constitutional amendment ends 27-year dispute with Greece

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev waves following the successful vote in parliament on Friday to formally change his country's name to Republic of North Macedonia. (Georgi Licovski/EPA-EFE)

Macedonia's parliament passed an amendment to the constitution on Friday to rename the country Republic of North Macedonia, a move which formally ends a 27-year dispute with Greece.

Eighty-one deputies in the 120-seat parliament voted in favour of the change. Representatives of the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, who said the agreement concedes too much to Greece, boycotted the vote. Party leader Hristjan Mickoski called the name change "an act of treason."

Greek and Macedonian leaders struck a deal on the new name in June, but Macedonia will start using it only after lawmakers in Greece also ratify the agreement.

Greece has repeatedly blocked its neighbour's aspirations to join the EU and NATO over the use of "Macedonia," which Athens says implies territorial claims over the Greek province of Macedonia and an appropriation of ancient Greek culture and civilization.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had required a minimum 80 votes to have the changes ratified.

"A better deal could not be reached, and without an agreement with Greece there will be no NATO and European Union (membership)," Zaev said.

At the start of the parliamentary session, he told deputies the name change was a tough but necessary decision that would "open the doors to the future, Macedonia's European future," and to joining the North Atlantic military alliance.

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the name change deal is "an important contribution to a stable and prosperous region."

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc strongly supports the deal and "remains firmly committed to continue to fully support and accompany (Macedonia) towards its common strategic goal of EU integration."

Western governments see Macedonia's NATO accession as a key step toward limiting Russian influence in the region.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who congratulated Zaev in a phone call following Friday's successful vote, has previously said once Greece is formally notified by Macedonia of the constitutional changes, he will swiftly launch the process of ratifying the agreement in Greece's parliament.

The junior coalition partner in Greece's government opposes the deal, but Tsipras has voiced confidence he will be able to secure ratification with the backing of opposition lawmakers.

Neighbouring Albania's foreign minister also congratulated Macedonia on the vote, which he called "a clear demonstration of statesmanship" that would unlock a path to the EU and NATO. Ethnic Albanians make up about one-quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people.

Several hundred people have protested against the deal in front of parliament over the past three days.

With files from The Associated Press