Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to sign off on an agreement to change the country's name to North Macedonia, calling it a "criminal act" that violates the Balkan country's constitution.
In a statement quoted by state-run news agency MIA on June 26, Ivanov said he has "no mandate to sign" the deal, which would end a 27-year dispute with Greece and pave the way for talks on Macedonian membership in the European Union and NATO.
The agreement signed by the two countries' foreign ministers on June 17 "violated the constitution of Macedonia, and made Macedonia dependent on a third party, i.e. Greece," it quoted Ivanov as saying.
Macedonian lawmakers on June 20 voted 69-0 in favor of the bill to ratify the agreement, which would change the country’s formal name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The opposition nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party boycotted the session.
Ivanov had repeatedly said he would not sign the agreement, but his refusal is unlikely to torpedo the deal because if parliament convenes for a second time and again approves the change, he cannot block it. Parliament speaker Talat Xhafer said lawmakers will probably repeat the vote next week.
However, the name change could still face obstacles outside parliament before it can be fully implemented. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's government must still amend the constitution and has vowed to hold a referendum on the issue in the country of 2.1 million, where opponents of the name change have staged repeated protests.
"Implementation of this agreement will have legal implications and therefore it represents a criminal act," Ivanov said.
Zaev said he will resign if the change is not supported by voters in the referendum. "Macedonia has no Plan B," Zaev told 1TV.
The name dispute between Skopje and Athens dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.
Neighboring Greece has objected to the name Macedonia, saying it implies territorial claims on the northern Greek region with the same name.
Because of Greek objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The agreed deal with Greece will require several more steps, including a referendum this autumn in Macedonia, before it can be fully implemented.