By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
While leaders in Brussels, Washington and the region have showered praise on the agreement between neighbouring Macedonia and Greece over Macedonia’s name, the deal has met a cold response from opposition parties back home.
The deal, announced by the leftist governments in Athens and Skopje on Tuesday, envisages Macedonia changing its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, subject to approval in a referendum in Macedonia that could be held later this year.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, and the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, enthusiastically welcomed the breakthrough, which is expected to unlock Skopje’s stalled EU and NATO membership bids.
“We wholeheartedly congratulate [Greek and Macedonian] Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev for their determination and leadership in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe,” Hahn and Mogherini said in a joint statement.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “warmly” welcomed the news of an end to the long-running Balkan dispute.
“I now call on both countries to finalise 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,” Stoltenberg said.
The US State Department said that Washington stands ready to support the agreement, as requested by the two countries.
“This resolution will benefit both countries and bolster regional security and prosperity. Prime Ministers Zaev and Tsipras demonstrated vision, courage, and persistence in their pursuit of a mutually acceptable solution. We also commend the commitment of UN mediator Matthew Nimetz for his steadfast efforts over more than two decades to end this dispute,” the State Department said in a statement on Tuesday.
Neighbouring countries, such as Bulgaria, Albania and Kosovo, also welcomed the deal.
Bulgaria said it welcomed the breakthrough, noting that it “opens the road of the Euro-Atlantic integration of our neighbour” and gives “a real chance that by the end of Bulgaria’s EU Presidency, there is progress and a horizon given by the EU to start accession negotiations”.
Sofia added that the change of name should not be interpreted as grounds for claiming a change in the territory, language, culture, history and identity of either of its neighbours.
According to the agreement, Macedonia will need to amend its constitution to implement the new name for international and domestic use; in return, Greece will lift its blockade on its neighbour’s quest to join NATO and the EU.
The definition of the country’s language will remain “Macedonian”, as Skopje insisted in the talks. The people’s nationality will be defined as “Macedonian/Citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia”.
While the two governments insist that the agreement is fair and protects their core interests, opposition forces in both countries have condemned it as a capitulation and as a defeat.
“If the so-called agreement means accepting a constitutional change as well as international and domestic use of the new name, then that is an agreement by Zoran Zaev for capitulation! I repeat – an agreement for capitulation!” the head of the Macedonian opposition VMRO DPMNE party, Hristijan Mickovski, said on Tuesday.
Similarly, Greek opposition parties, and even one of Tsipras’s partner parties, called the agreement a disgrace.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of Greece’s main opposition New Democracy party, said any agreement to the “Macedonian language” and “Macedonian ethnicity” was “unacceptable”.
Panos Kammenos, head of Greece’s junior ruling party, the Independent Greeks, also said it will not support a compromise name that includes the word “Macedonia”.
Despite this, most experts do not think the Greek and Macedonian Prime Ministers will have a problem mustering support in parliament for the agreement. A bigger question hangs over the referendum in Macedonia, likely to be held in the autumn.