ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek lawmakers are voting late Thursday on a deal with neighboring Macedonia that aims to end a nearly three decade-long dispute that has kept the former Yugoslav republic out of NATO and the European Union.
Greece, a member of both institutions, has blocked Macedonia's efforts to join the alliance, arguing use of the term "Macedonia" implies territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name, birthplace of the ancient warrior king Alexander the Great. Under a deal signed last year, the Balkan country will change its name to North Macedonia — and in return Greece will sign off on its efforts for NATO accession.
The deal, known as the Prespa Agreement after the border lake where it was signed, has faced strong opposition in both countries, with critics arguing their governments conceded too much to the other side.
In Greece, the agreement already cost the government its parliamentary majority, with the small right-wing Independent Greeks party quitting the governing coalition in protest. Still, the government narrowly survived a confidence vote last week and is expected to manage to get the deal approved by parliament in Thursday's vote. A simple majority of 151 of parliament's 300 members is required.
WHEN DID THE DISPUTE START?
The name dispute broke out in the early 1990s as Yugoslavia broke apart and its republics declared independence. It escalated quickly, with Athens imposing a crippling embargo on Macedonia, which is still officially recognized as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. Most Greeks simply call the country by the name of its capital city, Skopje.
Decades of tortuous U.N.-mediated talks went nowhere until changes in the Macedonian government in 2017 rekindled hopes that a solution could be found. The Prespa Agreement was signed in June 2018.
WHY DID GREECE OBJECT TO THE NAME?
The term "Macedonia" harks back to the ancient kingdom once ruled by Alexander the Great. Greeks, who consider this one of the high points of their history, see the use of the name by their northern neighbor as an attempt to usurp their history and also fear it harbors territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name. The ancient kingdom's geographical area now includes parts of Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav republic.
For the new country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia, the name Macedonia was one way for politicians to instill a sense of national pride, identity and nationhood in its population. Macedonian nationalists began producing maps of their country including Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city located in the north, which is the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia. Nikola Gruevski, Macedonian prime minister from 2006-2016, went on a building spree, erecting statues of ancient Greeks in the center of Skopje and naming the country's main highway and international airport after Alexander the Great. Greeks were horrified.
WHAT DOES THE AGREEMENT INVOLVE?
In broad terms, the deal stipulates Macedonia officially changes its name to North Macedonia and uses its new name both domestically and internationally. As part of the agreement, Macedonia had to make changes to its constitution to reflect the change.
Skopje has completed those steps, so the ball is now in Greece's court with the parliamentary vote. If the deal is ratified in parliament, Athens must then also officially notify NATO and the European Union that it supports its northern neighbor's efforts to join those institutions, and ratify Macedonia's NATO accession protocol.
Once the deal has been ratified and comes into effect, Macedonia will have a transition period of five years to amend official stationary, car number plates and passports, among other things.
ARE THERE STILL OBJECTIONS?
Absolutely. Many in Greece are outraged by what they see as the giving away of their national heritage. Many Greeks are particularly angered by the fact that under the agreement, the official nationality of the citizens of the country to their north will be official known as "Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia," meaning Greece will be recognizing Macedonian nationality. "Macedonian" is what those living in Greece's province of the same name call themselves. Opposition to the deal is strongest in northern Greece, where many have long demanded the country on their border not use any derivative of the term "Macedonia" in its name.
Critics also point out that although Macedonian lawmakers passed the required constitutional amendments, the full constitution incorporating these changes has yet to be made public.
Several protests have been planned in Greece to coincide with Thursday's vote, including one outside Parliament. Farmers' unions have said they will blockade the border with Macedonia and with Bulgaria Thursday afternoon, while a communist-backed union has called for protests both in Thessaloniki and in Athens near the US Embassy Thursday evening. Protests by tens of thousands of people Sunday turned violent, with demonstrators attacking police with iron bars, Molotov cocktails and rocks, and police making heavy use of tear gas.
Panos Kammenos, the head of the small right-wing Independent Greeks party who recently quit as defense minister and pulled his party out of the governing coalition in objection to the deal, has vowed to do whatever he can to stop the deal's ratification. The main opposition New Democracy party head, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also described the agreement as a "bad deal."
But after the government survived a confidence motion last week, the opposition was not expected to be able to gather enough support now for a successful censure motion.