Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has vowed to “safeguard” a name-change agreement with Macedonia after his foreign minister, who negotiated the deal, stepped down amid internal government strife.
"I am determined to do whatever I can [to] safeguard the successful conclusion of the historic…agreement," Tsipras told reporters on October 17, referring to the June deal that would see the former Yugoslav republic change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
The prime ministers’ comments came after he accepted the resignation of Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who was the chief negotiator with Skopje in the landmark talks.
Greek media reported that Kotzias quit a day after a cabinet meeting in which he had a heated argument with Defense Minister Panos Kammenos over the name deal and felt he did not receive enough backing from the prime minister and other leaders.
Kammenos and his right-wing Independent Greeks party are part of the left-wing Tsipras’s ruling coalition but vehemently oppose the deal with Skopje and have vowed to vote against it in parliament.
The name-change proposal has come following decades of political wrangling between Skopje and Athens that had prevented Macedonia from joining both NATO and the European Union.
Greece has maintained that Macedonia's name implied the Balkan nation had territorial claims to its northern province of the same name.
NATO has made clear that the agreement must be ratified by both Athens and Skopje in order for Macedonia to become the alliance’s 30th member under its new name.
Nationalists in Greece and Macedonia have opposed the deal, and leaders in both countries are struggling to get the votes in parliament to push through the name change.
In Macedonia, many opponents say it would constitute a sacrifice of sovereignty, while in Greece many say it would allow its neighbor to continue to use the historic Macedonia name.
Following the tentative agreement between the two sides, NATO on October 18 is due to officially start accession talks with Macedonia after inviting the Western Balkans country to join the alliance at a summit in July.
Accession talks usually last around three months before an accession protocol is signed.
The protocol then needs to be ratified by all other NATO members, a process that takes around one year.
The move comes despite a September 30 Macedonian referendum on changing the country's name failed to reach the required minimum 50 percent participation to be validated.
However, more than 90 percent of those who attended the vote were in favor of changing the country’s name.
Despite the failed referendum, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has vowed to keep pushing for a change to the nation’s name and amend the constitution as required by the deal with Greece.
Zaev's governing alliance needs at least 80 votes in the 120-member parliament to pass the amendment, and it appears to be about 10 votes short.
If the vote fails, Zaev has said he would call snap elections.