SKOPJE, FYROM — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg went to the Capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to give his support for a Sept. 30 referendum asking citizens if they will go along with a deal made with Greece to change the country’s name and get into the defense alliance.
Stoltenberg was due to meet Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and other political leaders on Sept. 6 to throw his weight behind the campaign for changing the name to North Macedonia. The alliance has already extended an invitation to join but it’s depending on the referendum succeeding and the Greek Parliament approving the agreement.
Anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras made the deal to end a 27-year name feud with FYROM that began when a New Democracy government allowed the new country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia to temporarily use the name Macedonia, that of an abutting ancient Greek province.
But after successive FYROM governments began claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki, Greece used a veto as a member of NATO to bar FYROM’s entry and also European Union accession talks.
Tsipras agreed to lift both those barriers even though Zaev hasn’t moved yet to change his country’s Constitution as planned to remove irredentist claims on Greek land. The deal also allows FYROM citizens to identify as Macedonian, not North Macedonian, and have a Macedonian language and culture.
That was too much for Tsipras’ junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos who said his party will vote against it and withdraw from the government if it comes to Parliament.
Stoltenberg, who said NATO wouldn’t intervene to keep Turkey from invading the airspace of Greece – both are members – was to also visit Athens to meet Tsipras, who, with 62 percent of Greeks opposed to the deal, has barred a referendum.
The deal was brokered with the help of UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who had failed for two decades to find a solution before resuming talks earlier this year after a three-year break amid speculation the US pressured Greece to relent to get FYROM into NATO as an American bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)