Macedonian Name Deal Passes Key Step in Parliamentary Vote

(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia cleared the way for the country to start changing its name and remove a decades-old roadblock to its NATO and European Union bids.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government, whose plans to join the Western institutions have irked Russia, mustered a two-thirds majority in parliament Friday to start changing the Balkan state’s name to “the Republic of North Macedonia.” That will fulfill part of a deal with Greece, which says the name “Macedonia” should only apply to its northern province. Athens will lift its veto on its neighbor’s efforts to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization once the switch is complete.

With the vote, “we have NATO membership, we have a chance to start talks with the European Union, and we have an identity,” Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told lawmakers in Skopje before the ballot.

Russia objects to the expansion of NATO into its former sphere of influence and opposes the name change. It has sided with the former Yugoslav republic’s nationalist opposition, which boycotted a September referendum where nine of 10 ballots supported the deal with Greece. The VMRO-DPMNE party and ally President Gjorgje Ivanov have called the plebiscite a failure after turnout was only 37 percent and are demanding that the government resign.

“It’s time for Zoran Zaev to go,” the party said in a statement Thursday. “He’s spent two years of citizens’ lives signing harmful deals and humiliating the state.”

Still, the 80 to 37 vote in the 120-member parliament -- three were absent -- showed that Zaev, who had threatened to trigger early elections if he failed, was able to lure some VMRO-DPMNE lawmakers to his cause. His Social Democrat-led government lacks the two-thirds majority to push through constitutional amendments on its own.

Now it will begin a process that may last several months before a final vote in the chamber that will require a new two-thirds majority. Zaev’s administration is pushing to complete the deal before the EU Parliament elections in May, when an unpredictable outcome may cloud his country’s integration plan. Once the constitution is changed, Greece has to ratify the deal in its parliament.

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