Balkan Nation Closes In on Key Vote to Open EU, NATO Doors

(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia will try to clear the biggest hurdle to joining NATO and the European Union this week with a decisive vote to change its name that will either open the path to membership or slam the door shut.

The former Yugoslav state is at the center of a tussle for influence over Europe’s most volatile region. Russia, which still sees the country and other ex-communist states as its sphere of influence, objects to the further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It has found allies opposing the name change among nationalist political forces in both Macedonia and neighboring Greece, which must also agree.

Lawmakers started a debate on Wednesday to change the constitution and end a decades-long dispute with Athens by renaming the country to "the Republic of North Macedonia." In exchange, Greece, which claims the name "Macedonia" should apply only to its northern province, has promised to lift its veto over its neighbor’s membership bids.

Balkan Nation Closes In on Key Vote to Open EU, NATO Doors

“Your vote is a vote for full membership in NATO in less than a year, a vote that will put us in the European family of nations in the EU,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told lawmakers in the assembly. “Every vote against is a vote for isolation, uncertainty and poverty.”

Zaev is hoping for a repeat of October, when he won a two-thirds vote in the 120-member parliament to get the process started. Aleksandar Kiracoski, the secretary general of Zaev’s Social Democratic Union, said the ruling coalition has enough support for the amendments and that the chamber would vote by Jan. 11.

Zaev held talks earlier this week with parties that represent Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian minority, who supported the October vote, with their deliberations focused on language that recognizes the nation’s multi-ethnic character. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party of ex-Premier Nikola Gruevski will boycott the vote.

If it fails to pass, it will torpedo any hope of the country of 2 million completing accession and may give rise to new tensions in a region that’s still smarting from Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup in the 1990s.

Russia has accused the U.S. and EU of intervening in Macedonia’s affairs and of helping force the constitutional changes. Another opponent of the deal is Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who has refused to sign it, citing a threat to his country’s national identity. Hundreds of people were holding a protest against the amendments in front of the assembly in Skopje, the capital, according to a live stream by Sitel TV.

Greece must also ratify the agreement and sign off on Macedonia’s NATO accession process before the name change becomes valid. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, who governs with a nationalist party that opposes the deal, has promised to secure majority.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that Macedonia’s accession talks can be completed by end-January. Zaev’s administration is pushing to finalize the deal before the European Parliament elections in May, when an unpredictable outcome may cloud his country’s integration plans.

“There’s an incredible strategic impetus for the Greeks and Macedonians to be able to get this deal to the finish line, to repair a chapter of torn relations in this region,” Damon Wilson, the Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council in Washington, said by phone. “Failure would be a generational setback.”

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