After years of discussions and protests, Greece’s parliament has backed a historic deal to rename its neighbor the Republic of North Macedonia.
Despite its widespread unpopularity, MPs voted by a majority of seven votes in favor of the deal, which has already been ratified by Macedonia.
Greeks have rejected the name Macedonia since its independence in 1991, due to their own region of the same name.
Polls suggest that up to two-thirds of Greeks are unhappy with the deal.
Clashes took place outside the Parliament building the night before the vote, with police firing tear gas to disperse protesters by throwing flares and firecrackers.
Protesters held banners proclaiming “Macedonia is Greek” and, inside parliament, MPs from the far-right Golden Dawn shouted “traitors” while other MPs voted yes.
Why did the agreement take so long?
Macedonia has a long history as a region in northern Greece that includes the second city of Thessaloniki. Then came a new nation, born from the collapse of Yugoslavia, which took its name in 1991.
The Greeks, fiercely proud of the ancient heritage of Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon, were furious and suspected their neighbor of having territorial ambitions.
For years, American diplomat Matthew Nimetz searched for common ground. Solving the name was a big part of his job, as Greece thwarted its neighbor’s attempts to join NATO and the EU, and Macedonia fought back.
Macedonians supported the deal, first in the September referendum in which only a third of voters took part, and then in parliament.
Now that the deal has been backed by the Greek parliament, the government in Athens will send a note verbale to its neighbor and Macedonia will then inform the United Nations.
Mr Tsipras welcomed the new name shortly after the Parliament vote.
For Macedonia itself, the name change will become final once NATO ambassadors sign its accession in Brussels and the Greek parliament then ratifies this protocol.
What will change?
Under the historic Prespa agreement, everyone will have to use the new name.
The Republic of North Macedonia, or North Macedonia for short, will replace the existing title of Macedonia, officially called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM) at the United Nations.
The language will continue to be known as Macedonian and its people as Macedonians (citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia). In Macedonian, the name will be Severna Makedonija. The Greeks will know it under the name Voria Makedonia.
In addition to supporting its NATO membership, Greece will also need to support its bid for EU membership.
The two countries also agree:
- “On the need to refrain from irredentism and revisionism in any form” – seen as a response to Greek fears that the Macedonians might have designs on their territory
- Fight against state propaganda and incitement and agree to create a group of experts to examine an objective interpretation of history.
- “The terms ‘Macedonian’ and ‘Macedonian’ refer to a different historical context and cultural heritage” – and that one is South Slavic and has nothing to do with ancient Greece.
- The new Republic of North Macedonia will “review the status” of any public building or monument referring to ancient Greek history
Is the name change unpopular?
Overall, Greeks don’t like him, with recent polls suggesting at least 60% are unhappy.
As a result, the Greek Prime Minister lost his right-wing coalition partner, the Independent Greeks. Mr Tsipras, who leads the left-wing Syriza party, faces elections later this year.
Opposition New Democracy MP Giorgos Koumoutsakos said the deal ignored the majority of Greeks and was a “stab into the soul of the nation”.
But the number of protesters has not been as large in recent times as in previous years, says Professor Dimitris Christopoulos of Panteion University, who supports the agreement.
“The main political message of the rally is that Macedonia and Greece are extremely nationalist,” he says, unlike the mainstream opposition whose problem is recognizing the language and nationality of their neighbors as Macedonian rather than Macedonian. North.
For the Macedonians, it will be a matter of getting used to a new name, and there the love is not lost either.
“We will have to work on our identity,” says Professor Goran Janev of Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje.
“No one can be happy to do anything because of the blackmail of the international community. For three decades they have allowed the Greek side to behave like spoiled children.”
Is the dispute over names really about Alexander the Great?
The new state of Macedonia didn’t help matters by naming the main airport in its capital, Skopje, after the Greek hero Alexander the Great, as well as a key highway running from the Serbian to the Greek border, which in Tito’s Yugoslavia was known as the highway of Brotherhood and Unity. A collection of neoclassical buildings sprung up, as Skopje searched for a proud past.
It stopped. The airport was renamed “Skopje International Airport” last year, the Alexander the Great Highway is now simply called “Friendship” (Prijatelstvo in Macedonian) and the buildings will be overhauled under the Prespa Agreement .
But if Alexander remains a powerful symbol, there remain bitter memories of a more recent past.
When the Ottomans were driven from the vast region known as Macedonia during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, it was divided, mainly between Greece and Serbia, but a small part went to Bulgaria.
During World War II, Greek and Yugoslav Macedonia were occupied by Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany and Italy. Communists from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria played a role in the Greek Civil War that followed.
Macedonians also remember the expulsion of tens of thousands of citizens after the Second World War.
Is there much hope for the future?
A large part of the agreement concerns future cooperation – on road, rail, sea and air – as well as in industry and tourism.
And much of this is already happening on both sides.
“Despite everything, the biggest investor in Macedonia is Greece, so it is already there,” explains Dimitris Christopoulos. “Greek banks remain the biggest investors in this country. Macedonian Greece already has rational relations and this will accelerate.
One of the major ambitions of the agreement is the creation within a month of a “Joint Interdisciplinary Committee of Experts” which will examine whether school textbooks, maps and historical atlases need to be revised in both countries.
“It’s difficult because we’ve never had this process of truth and reconciliation. So much has been swept under the rug,” says Professor Janev.