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Greek Parliament Approves Macedonia Name Change


Demonstrators, angry at the proposed name change, face off against police in Athens on January 20.
Demonstrators, angry at the proposed name change, face off against police in Athens on January 20.

The Greek parliament has narrowly approved a historic agreement to normalize relations with neighboring Macedonia, in a move welcomed by the European Union.

Greek lawmakers on January 25 voted 153-146 in favor of the deal, which has already been ratified by Macedonia's parliament.

The agreement, signed last year by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev at Lake Prespa along the border separating Macedonia and Greece, could pave the way for Macedonia to seek membership in the EU and NATO.

"Today is a historic day," Tsipras said in a tweet he posted after the vote.

"Today we write a new page for the Balkans. The hatred of nationalism, dispute and conflict will be replaced by friendship, peace and cooperation," Tsipras added.

"We warmly welcome the next crucial step in the ratification of the Prespa Agreement, taken with today's vote by the Hellenic Parliament," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement after the vote.

The agreement has been backed by Western countries that want to limit Russian influence in the Balkans. But it has faced opposition, mainly from nationalists in both Greece and Macedonia who argue it gives away too much to the other side.

"From the very beginning, the European Union has strongly supported the historic agreement signed by Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev, following negotiations under the auspices of the UN," the EU statement said.

"It took political courage, leadership, and responsibility on all sides to resolve one of the most entrenched disputes in the region. Both countries have seized this unique opportunity which sets an example of reconciliation for Europe as a whole and will give a further boost to the European perspective of the region."

European Council President Donald Tusk said the two countries had achieved "mission impossible."

"They had imagination, they took the risk, they were ready to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good," Tusk wrote on Twitter.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the vote in a tweet, saying it is "an important contribution to the stability and prosperity of the whole region."

"I look forward to the future Republic of North Macedonia joining NATO,” he added.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev congratulated the Greek prime minister on the vote in a message posted on Twitter.

"Congratulations my friend, Alexis Tsipras. Together with our peoples we reached a historical victory. Long live the Prespa Agreement! For eternal peace and progress of the Balkans and in Europe!"

Both prime ministers faced political opposition and struggled to ratify the deal.

The ratification vote came after three days of heated debate and some violent protests against the deal, aimed at ending a nearly three decade-long dispute that has kept Macedonia from joining the Western military alliance and the European Union.

Several small protests against the deal were under way in Athens, but only a few dozen demonstrators attended because of the torrential rain.

On January 24, as lawmakers debated the deal, demonstrators clashed with police outside, some of them chanting “traitors.”

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades after some in the crowd hurled rocks and other objects in their direction.

Police later said they arrested 10 people and detained another 133 on suspicion of committing or planning acts of violence. A new protest has been called outside parliament on January 25.

Under the agreement, Macedonia changes its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The deal could unblock Macedonia's bids to join NATO and the European Union, long blocked by Greece.

Tsipras secured the parliamentary majority needed to get the accord approved with support from independent and opposition lawmakers.

"After one year of negotiations, discussions and exhaustive diaologue, we are reaching the end of a tough and painful process," Tsipras told parliament during a heated debate on January 24.

The ratification vote in parliament originally was scheduled for January 24. Debate was extended until January 25 to allow the large number of registered speakers to have their say.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
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