Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has urged deputies to "look into the future" as parliament opened a debate on proposed constitutional amendments to change the country's name and settle a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece.
"Let’s show the world that above all of our domestic political misunderstandings and conflicts, we have a joint interest: the future of our country," Zaev told parliament on October 15. He warned that rejecting the change would leave the country poor and isolated.
In June, the Macedonian and Greek governments hammered out a deal under which Athens agreed to lift its objections to the former Yugoslav republic joining both NATO and the EU in exchange for the country changing its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
A subsequent September 30 national referendum on the issue was declared invalid because of an insufficient turnout -- 34 percent of voters participated, well below the minimum 50 percent threshold needed. However, more than 90 percent of those who voted backed the accord.
Despite the failed referendum, Zaev vowed to keep pushing for a change to the Balkan nation’s name and amend the constitution as required by the deal with Greece.
In his remarks to parliament, he said that rejecting the deal with Greece would leave Macedonia in "isolation, poverty, and uncertainty."
“The [country’s] direction is NATO and the European Union, and I think that all 120 deputies have the same conviction, but we differ how we can achieve it," said Ilija Dimovski of the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which has campaigned against the name change.
Before the start of the debate in parliament, a group of some 25 opponents of the name change staged a protest outside the parliament building.
After hours of discussions, lawmakers ended their first day of debate without reaching a decision on whether to approve a deal. The session was set to resume in the morning of October 16.
The debate could last for up to 10 days.
Zaev's Social Democrat coalition, backed by parties representing Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority, appears to be at least 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed -- 80 out of 120 votes.
Zaev will need to get the support of around a dozen deputies from VMRO-DPMNE, which has vowed to defeat the proposed constitutional amendments, maintaining that it was rejected by voters because of the poor turnout in the referendum.
If the vote fails, Zaev has said he would call snap elections.
In an interview with the Macedonian Information Agency news agency, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on October 14 reiterated support for the agreement between Athens and Skopje, saying it was a "unique opportunity for reconciliation in the Western Balkans, which may never happen again."
Zaev, who came to power following elections 22 months ago, has said he would call early elections if the amendments fail to pass in parliament.
Greece, an EU and NATO member, has for years maintained that Macedonia's name implied the Balkan nation had territorial claims to its northern province of the same name.