SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, after the foreign minister signed a landmark agreement with Greece over the country’s name, suggesting a long road ahead before the 27-year dispute is finally settled.
The protests erupted on June 17 as the foreign ministers of Macedonia and Greece signed the agreement that would modify the name of the former Yugoslav republic to the Republic of North Macedonia.
The agreement, signed at Lake Prespa along the border separating the countries, could pave the way for Macedonia to seek membership in the European Union and NATO.
But nationalists in both Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the change. The two countries' parliaments must still ratify the deal, and Macedonia’s president has split with his prime minister and says he will veto the deal if it is ratified by parliament.
Late on June 17, police fired flash grenades and tear gas near Macedonia’s National Assembly building in Skopje after reports of protesters pushing through barriers and attacking officers.
A1 TV reported that some of the demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at police attempting to secure the parliament building.
The crowd chanted "Macedonia: We won't give up the name" and sang patriotic songs.
Earlier on June 17, some 5,000 people had rallied in southwestern Macedonia in an event organized by the opposition nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which has vehemently opposed the name change.
The two countries’ prime ministers -- Zoran Zaev of Macedonia and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras -- attended the signing ceremony in the Greek fishing village of Psarades, along with United Nations and European officials.
"Our peoples want peace...We will be partners and allies," Zaev said
Tsipras, who survived a no-confidence vote by Greek opponents of the deal, described the agreement as a "brave, historic, and necessary step for our peoples."
"We are here to heal the wounds of time, to open a path for peace, fraternization, and growth for our countries, the Balkans, and Europe," he added.
The AFP news agency reported that Greek riot police blocked a few hundred protesters several kilometers away from the ceremony.
Macedonian government officials have said that, with the deal in hand, they hope to secure a date to begin EU accession talks at a summit later this month and an invitation to join NATO by mid-July.
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.
Greece had objected to the name Macedonia, fearing territorial claims on its eponymous northern region.
Because of Greek objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Greece, an EU and NATO member, has also cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bid to join the two organizations.
The Macedonian parliament is scheduled to start debating the agreement the upcoming week.
According to some polls, about 45 percent of Macedonians would sacrifice NATO and EU membership to keep the Macedonia name, while nine out of 10 ethnic Albanians -- who make up more than one-quarter of the country's 2.1 million population -- would not.