ATHENS – In a compromise deal to end a 26-year dispute, Greece’s anti-nationalist Radical Left Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras – minus his coalition partner – has agreed to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) call itself North Macedonia but its citizens Macedonians.
That would give away the name Macedonia, an abutting ancient Greek province, forever and see Tsipras concede to a condition also ceding the Macedonia identity and language to the residents of North Macedonia, if they agree in a referendum planned for the autumn.
The deal set off an immediate firestorm of vehement criticism from rival parties and also from Tsipras’ partner, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who said he would not agree to giveaway.
But continuing his contradictions he also said he would not stand in the way of a deal but would expel any member of his party who votes for the name deal except for him.
Tsipras and FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev rushed to make a deal so that Greece would lift vetoes and allow its Balkan neighbor – North Macedonia – to get into NATO and begin European Union aspirations.
FYROM is already called Macedonia by 140 countries and Tsipras said adding the qualifier would differentiate the country from the Greek province and that the name North Macedonia would be used in that country as well as internationally.
Macedonia will also amend its constitution to reflect the change as part of the deal but Zaev will have to contend with nationalists opposed to that, including the party of his own Foreign Minister.
The nationality of the country’s citizens will be listed on official documents in English as “Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia,” Greek officials said.
NATO and European Union officials welcomed the breakthrough, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said would help consolidate regional peace and stability.
A key broker – who had long ago proposed the name – was United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who had failed for nearly two decades to find a solution but resumed talks this year after a three-year break amid speculation it was done under pressure from the US to get FYROM into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Nimetz said in a statement he had “no doubt this agreement will lead to a period of enhanced relations between the two neighboring countries and especially between their people.”
The current prime ministers’ attempts to end the dispute have faced dissent in both countries, leading to large protests by opponents of a compromise, threatening to split Greece’s governing coalition and provoking a rift between FYROM’s Prime Minister and President, and main opposition parties in both countries rejected the agreement.
Zaev said the deal would be signed this weekend, and a voter referendum would be held in the fall.
OPPOSITION NEED NOT APPLY
In a televised address, Tsipras said the 140 countries which had recognized the Balkan state simply as Macedonia would now recognize it as Republic of North Macedonia but he won’t allow a referendum and ignored surveys showing 68 percent of Greeks opposed and massive rallies against the giveaway.
“This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors and puts an end to the irredentism which their current constitutional name implies,” he said.
He added that FYROM “cannot and will not be able in the future to claim any connection with the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia,” even though its citizens will be called Macedonians and not North Macedonians.
Speaking at a news conference in the FYROM capital, Skopje, Zaev described the deal as a “historic agreement of the century.”
“We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute … that has been drowning the country,” he said, adding that the deal “will strengthen the Macedonian identity,” – of his people, not the Macedonians in Greece, adding to the confusion.
On the timeline of the deal, Tsipras said that it would be first signed by the two countries’ foreign ministers and then ratified by FYROM’s Parliament but it was unclear what would happen if Greece’s Parliamente rejects the deal if ANEL votes against it and Tsipras can’t get enough votes from rival parties.
Greece will then back invitations for FYROM to join NATO and start negotiations on joining the EU. However, Tsipras said, this will be contingent on FYROM completing the constitutional changes.
“In other words, if the constitutional amendment is not successfully completed, then the invitation to join NATO will be automatically rescinded and the accession talks with the European Union will not start,” he said without adding what would happen if North Macedonia is already admitted to NATO and is a member.
The deal was welcomed by EU officials. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted his “sincere congratulations” to Tsipras and Zaev. “I am keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to you, the impossible is becoming possible,” he said.
EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn issued a joint statement congratulating the two prime ministers “in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe.”
They said they looked forward to accession negotiations beginning with Skopje immediately.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the agreement as “a demonstration of leadership to the wider region and beyond” and hopes it will inspire others involved in drawn-out conflicts “to work towards negotiated settlements without further delay,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov said earlier in the day that he remained opposed to writing the new name into the Constitution, a move intended to show the change is permanent and binding for domestic and international use.
The main opposition party in FYROM, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, accused Zaev of “capitulating” to Greece. “In essence, the (deal) is acceptance of all Greek positions,” VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said.
In Athens, New Democracy opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged Tsipras not to go ahead with the agreement. “This is a bad agreement that is in conflict with the majority of the Greek people,” he said.
Ironically, it was his father, the late former Premier Constantinos Mitsotakis who in 1992 allowed the new country breaking away from the collapsing Yugoslavia to use the name Macedonia in the FYROM acronym.
That was supposed to be temporary but after FYROM governments began claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki, Greece used a veto to bar FYROM from getting into NATO and the EU.
Organizers of past rallies in Greece’s main cities against a compromise with FYROM also expressed outrage at the deal, with one accusing Tsipras of “high treason.”
“He was Skopje’s best negotiator,” Michael Patsikas said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)