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Macedonian Name Change Moves Ahead After Crucial Parliament Vote


Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addressing parliament.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addressing parliament.

Macedonia's parliament has taken a critical step toward renaming the country North Macedonia, a move that would end a decades-long dispute with Greece and pave the way for Skopje to join NATO and the European Union.

With not a vote to spare, a bare two-thirds majority of 80 of the Macedonian parliament's 120 members voted for the name change after a tense week of debate, back-room negotiations, and delays that pushed the vote into the late hours of October 19.

Amendments will now be drafted to incorporate the new name into Macedonia's constitution, after which another parliamentary vote will be required to enshrine the changes -- most likely in January.

With lawmakers from his own governing coalition solidly behind him, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democrat government struggled to woo the few votes he needed from conservative opposition members to achieve the two-thirds margin of support required for changing the nation's constitution.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party was vehemently against the deal, but Zaev pleaded with the party's leaders to allow legislators looking to the country's hopes for a future in the EU to vote their conscience.

"Together we have made history today," Zaev said after the vote. "Our journey toward a better future, toward European Union and NATO membership, has just begun.... We will strive for reconciliation, and national unity."

Under an accord which Zaev struck with his Greek counterpart in June, the Balkan state would rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Athens' promise to stop blocking its entry into NATO and the EU.

Greece has stood in Macedonia's way for 27 years out of concern that the country's current name implies a claim on its own northern province of the same name and to Greece's ancient cultural heritage.

Macedonian critics of Zaev's deal called it an embarrassing concession to Athens. But with the VMRO presenting no alternative and a breakthrough having eluded the country for decades, a few legislators proved willing to part ways with their party's leadership and approve the change.

"I want to say thank you to every MP, and especially to the MPs from VMRO-DPMNE who put the state's interests above party and personal interests," Zaev said after the vote, adding that he would "guarantee" their safety.

Among the "yes" voters were three VMRO politicians who were granted bail from house arrest this week.

They are facing trial for their alleged involvement in a mob attack on parliament on April 27, 2017, when VMRO supporters stormed the assembly in an incident that left Zaev and other legislators injured and bloodied.

Zaev refused to say on October 19 whether the VMRO legislators granted bail might eventually get amnesty.

"I personally forgive everyone," he told reporters, repeating a call he made earlier in the week for "reconciliation" over the incident.

He also denied an accusation from VMRO that his government had offered bribes for votes.

In recent weeks, U.S. and EU officials have urges Macedonian legislators to support for the name-change deal, pitching it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Skopje to cement an alliance with the West.

"With one voice, you are one big step closer to taking your rightful place in our transatlantic community," European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter after the vote.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn called it "a great day for democracy in Skopje" and said the votes of "those who crossed the aisle" are "fully respected."

Before the vote, Russia and the United States traded allegations of interfering in Macedonia's affairs.

Last month, Washington accused Moscow of running a disinformation campaign to sour the public on the deal, and claimed that resulted in a low turnout for last month's public referendum on the name change.

Russia has made no secret of opposing Macedonia's NATO aspirations and this week accused Washington and Brussels of the "crudest interference" in Skopje's affairs because of their public statements in favor of the name change.

"The United States welcomes the decision by Macedonia’s parliament to initiate the constitutional changes needed to implement the Prespa Agreement with Greece," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement October 20. "The United States believes that the Prespa Agreement is a historic opportunity to advance stability, security, and prosperity throughout the region.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed the move.

"It's up to the government and political leaders to complete national procedures on the name agreement and seize this historic opportunity to bring the country into NATO," he said in a tweet on October 19.

Zaev's government organized the "consultative" referendum on September 30 in hopes that strong public approval of the new name would help push it through parliament.

While more than 90 percent of those who voted approved the name-change, the results were marred by an opposition boycott that resulted in low turnout of less than 50 percent at the polls.

If the name change gains final approval in Macedonia, Greece's parliament will then need to ratify the deal before it can go into effect.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras congratulated Zaev after the vote on October 19, writing on Twitter: "Tonight's vote is a big step towards our common success."

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, RFE/RL's Balkan Service, and Reuters
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