North Macedonia Name Deal Hits Hurdles Right Out of the Gate

(Bloomberg) -- The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s deal with Greece to end their decades-long name dispute hit its first hurdles a day after its unveiling as detractors in both countries mounted opposition to the accord.

By agreeing to call the Balkan state of 2 million people "the Republic of North Macedonia", Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras are seeking to unlock that country’s accession process to both the European Union and NATO. But they must find support at home in political environments that underscore a path fraught with obstacles.

Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov, who has veto power over legislation, denounced the agreement, saying it violated the constitution and hurt his country’s national interests. He said he wouldn’t sign it, and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which backs Ivanov, also vowed to oppose any changes to the country’s constitution.

"My decision is final and it won’t change by any convincing or pressure," Ivanov said in a live-stream address. "The EU and NATO shouldn’t be an alibi for a bad accord which will create harmful consequences for the state and national interests of the Republic of Macedonia."

It’s not the first time Ivanov has tried to block legislation from the current government, with a law on languages coming into force despite the president vetoing it twice.

In Greece, the main opposition New Democracy party demands that Tsipras get a mandate from parliament before he signs the agreement, complicating plans for him and Zaev to do that as early as this weekend. If he doesn’t, New Democracy is considering launching a no-confidence motion against him, according to two party officials, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the discussions.

Party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on President Prokopis Pavlopoulos to force Tsipras to submit the agreement to the assembly, saying he "will exhaust all available means" to bring it up for debate.

The talks have also sparked a confrontation between Tsipras and his main coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, whose leader and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos reiterated on Tuesday his party won’t back any agreement that includes the term “Macedonia.”

Tsipras, whose coalition controls a majority in the assembly, said the agreement would allow the Republic of Macedonia to get a green light to start EU accession talks at a summit later this month and an invitation to join NATO at a gathering of its members in July.

"Both invitations will be conditional on the successful completion of the constitutional revision" by lawmakers in Skopje, Tsipras said. Greece’s parliament will hold off on approving the deal until after that has been completed.

Three Challenges

Zaev jump-started UN-mediated negotiations over the name, which Greece believes to be a territorial claim on its northern province called Macedonia, after he took power a year ago. He has accused his predecessor, nationalist former VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, of deliberately fueling the rift with Greece.

The premier now has three main challenges ahead. The first is to approve the deal in parliament, where his coalition holds a majority. Then voters will go to the polls in the fall in a consultative referendum on changing their country’s name. After the referendum, Zaev will need to muster a two-thirds of votes in the chamber to amend the constitution in a ballot that will require opposition support.

Inside the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’: QuickTake

Zaev didn’t rule out holding a snap vote with the referendum this year or with presidential elections in 2019. Almost three fifths of Macedonians think that EU membership will be a good thing, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey from November 2017. A separate survey conducted in February showed 71 percent supported joining NATO, according the International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies in Ljubljana.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on both countries to finalize the agreement, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said the European Council should open accession talks with Skopje in June.

"NATO and EU officials both are aware of the importance to shore up the Macedonian government," Florian Bieber, professor of southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz, Austria, said in an email. "They had to reject the membership of a country for years due to the opposition of one, leading to democratic backsliding and crisis. Now both can prove that membership is merit-based and rewarding a reformist government."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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