Macedonian PM: Greece's turn to make history with name deal
People attend a protest against the change of the country's name outside the parliament building during a session of the Macedonian Parliament in the capital Skopje, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
Konstantin Testorides and Nicholas Paphitis, The Associated Press
Published Friday, January 11, 2019 4:50PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, January 12, 2019 12:30PM EST
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Macedonia's prime minister says he expects Greece's parliament to do its part and ratify the deal changing his country's name to North Macedonia so it can soon join NATO.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told reporters in the capital of Skopje on Saturday that he expects neighbouring Greece to be the first country to sign the accession protocol for Macedonia to become NATO's 30th member.
NATO formally invited Macedonia to join the military alliance in 2008, but Greece vetoed the move, claiming that Macedonia's name implies territorial aspirations toward Greece's northern province with the same name as well as appropriating Greece's historical heritage.
Zaev said that Macedonian lawmakers had "made history" Friday with their decision to back the constitutional changes associated with the name change.
"I know how difficult that was ... we are putting the bitterness in the past and we are looking now proudly to the future," Zaev said.
He said he now expects Greece's parliament to convene and do the same, and unblock Macedonia's NATO membership.
Zaev said that Greece has "got a new friend now North Macedonia," adding that he hopes the two nations will build up trust and open "many new windows" for co-operation.
But in Greece, the upcoming parliamentary vote on the name change ratification has frayed relations between Greece's coalition partners.
Greek defence Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party, is vehemently opposed to the deal. He has repeatedly threatened to pull his lawmakers out of the government, although he has sent mixed signals on whether he will bring down the government in a vote of confidence.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Kammenos will meet Sunday morning to discuss their differences.
A Greek government spokeswoman told The Associated Press that by Monday, or at least later in the week, the timeline for ratification will be clearer. The vote could possibly even take place this month, unless a confidence motion, invoked either by Tsipras or by the opposition New Democracy party, is discussed first.
Several lawmakers from small centre-left parties, as well as at least two from Kammenos' party, have indicated they are ready to vote for the name deal.
Tsipras, who has the unquestioned backing of the 145-strong Syriza parliamentary group, has repeatedly expressed certainty that he will find the 151 votes to ensure ratification of the name deal by a majority in the 300-member Parliament.
The Macedonian parliament's ratification has been hailed by several foreign leaders, including NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Adding his congratulations late Friday, was Matthew Nimetz, the U.N. Secretary-General's personal envoy on the name dispute since 1999, saying that the agreement paves the way for "a firmer basis for peace and security in the Balkans."
"I wish to congratulate the (Macedonian) parliament and the country's citizens for this accomplishment and for the democratic manner in which this important process was undertaken," he said.
Associated Press writer Konstantin Testorides reported this story in Skopje and AP writer Nicholas Paphitis reported from Athens, Greece.