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Greek lawmakers to vote on Macedonia name change

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A group of protesters gather in front of the Greek parliament in Athens on January 25, 2019 against the name change deal with neighbouring Macedonia. – Macedonia’s parliament on January 11 backed a constitutional revision to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, but for the deal to go through, it must also be approved by Greek MPs. Greek lawmakers on January 25, 2019 prepared for one of the most decisive votes in the country’s recent history, with a decision to ratify a landmark name change deal with neighbouring Macedonia that has sparked furious protest. (Photo by Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP)

Greek lawmakers on Friday prepared for one of the most decisive votes in the country’s recent history, with a decision to ratify a landmark name change deal with neighbouring Macedonia that has sparked furious protest.

The vote, which has been called for 1230GMT, aims to end one of the world’s most stubborn diplomatic disputes, which dates to the declaration of Macedonia’s independence in 1991.

“With this agreement, Greece regains… its history, its symbols, its tradition,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the chamber on Thursday during the two-day debate, calling an end to “thirty years of hypocrisy”.

He added that Macedonia “will become a friend, an ally, a supporter for cooperation, peace and security in the area.”

Macedonia’s parliament on January 11 backed a constitutional revision to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, but for the deal to go through, it must also be approved by Greek MPs.

Since 1991, Athens has objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because Greece has a northern province of the same name. In ancient times it was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire, a source of intense pride for Greeks.

To make the UN-sponsored agreement final, Greece must also ratify a protocol approving Macedonia’s NATO membership. This is expected to take place next month.

Protests have been held in both countries against the agreement — some of them violent — and lawmakers in Greece have reported threats and arson attacks against their homes.

Another protest in Athens has been called for midday.

A poll released by SKAI TV on Thursday night found 62 percent of respondents oppose the deal, with 27 percent in favour.

A week earlier, another poll in Proto Thema weekly had found 66 percent in opposition.

‘New page in history’
Leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was closely involved in brokering the June deal with Macedonia counterpart Zoran Zaev. Both have staked their political careers on its outcome.

Tsipras has 145 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament, but a number of independent MPs have pledged to support the agreement.

Centrist Ethnos daily on Friday said a majority of 153 lawmakers in favour of the agreement was a “certainty” as the country prepared to “turn a new page in history”.

Anti-Tsipras daily Ta Nea said the deal was the result of a “painful compromise” and was full of “pitfalls”.

In addition to normalising relations between the two countries, implementation of the agreement will open the door for Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO, hitherto blocked by Athens’ veto.

But in Greece, its neighbour’s name continues to fuel controversy in politics and society, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Critics say the agreement — which drops Greece’s objections to an official Macedonian language and identity — opens the way for possible cultural usurpation and trade disputes.

Main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the conservative New Democracy party said the agreement “creates new problems” and “awakens nationalism”.

“Your foreign policy is superficial and ignorant… you should be ashamed,” he told leftist lawmakers.

But Tsipras insisted Thursday: “We never had a Macedonian language. Alexander the Great spoke Greek.”

“Are you afraid of a state that does not even have two percent of our (military) capability and not even six percent of our economic output?,” former foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, a signatory of the agreement, asked parliament on Thursday.

On Sunday, clashes between police and masked protesters left around 40 people injured as tens of thousands demonstrated in Athens against the name change.

The government blamed far-right extremists and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party for the violence.


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