Macedonia to hold name-change referendum
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, agreed to the deal to end the dispute from when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Tsipras and Zaev, both in their early 40s with anti-nationalist instincts, had long taken a progressive view on the dispute.
Athens disliked the name, saying it implied territorial ambitions toward Greece’s region of Macedonia, which is larger and includes Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, and ancient Philippi, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Greeks have been alarmed by the appropriation by Slav Macedonian nationalists of Alexander the Great and other figures from ancient history, who are seen as key to Hellenic identity.
A nationalist backlash in both countries is likely with opponents already deriding the deal as an act of treachery.
Greece’s main opposition leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said it amounted to Athens accepting the existence of a Macedonian language and nation.
The United Nations calls it the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the name dispute has blocked efforts to join the European Union.
Resentment grew when the centre-right VMRO-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity began a policy of “antiquisation” after winning power in 2006. Then prime minister Nikola Gruevski turned the centre of Skopje into a neoclassical amusement park with a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the main square.
But Greece made no objection about Macedonia when it was part of communist Yugoslavia with the recognition of a Macedonian nation within the federal system.
Also, Skopje has not demanded rights for the ethnic Slav Macedonians in northern Greece.
Zaev tweeted that the deal would preserve Macedonia’s ethnic and cultural identity and both its language and people would continue to be known as Macedonian.
Tsipras tweeted: “It is finally ending a conflict that undermined stability in our region and opens a window in the future. A window of solidarity, friendship and cooperation, prosperity and co-development among our peoples.”
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, tweeted: “I am keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to you the impossible is becoming possible.”
Nato said the agreement would “set Skopje on its path to Nato membership” and praised the leaders for their efforts to “solve a dispute which has affected the region for too long”.
Skopje has tried to lay a claim to Hellenic culture. Picture credit: Pixabay