Macedonian Name Change Moves Ahead After Crucial Vote In Parliament

Macedonia's parliament has taken a critical step toward renaming the
country North Macedonia, a move that would end a decades-long dispute
with Greece and pave the way for Skopje to join NATO and the European

With not a vote to spare, a bare two-thirds majority of 80 the
Macedonian parliament's 120 members voted for the name change after a
tense week of debate, back-room negotiations, and delays that pushed the
vote into the late hours of October 19.

Amendments will now be drafted to incorporate the new name into
Macedonia's constitution, after which another parliamentary vote will be
required to enshrine the changes -- most likely in January.

With lawmakers from his own governing coalition solidly behind him,
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democrat government struggled to woo
the few votes he needed from conservative opposition members to achieve
the two-thirds margin of support required for changing the nation's

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party was vehemently against the deal, but
Zaev pleaded with the party's leaders to allow legislators looking to
the country's hopes for a future in the EU to vote their conscience.

"Together we have made history today," Zaev said after the name change
squeaked through. "Our journey toward a better future, toward European
Union and NATO membership, has just begun... We will strive for
reconciliation, and national unity."

Under an accord which Zaev struck with his Greek counterpart in June,
the Balkan state would rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for
Athens' promise to stop blocking its entry into NATO and the EU.

Greece has stood in Macedonia's way for 27 years out of concern that the
country's current name Macedonia implies a claim on its own northern
province of the same name and to Greece;s ancient cultural heritage.

Macedonian critics of Zaev's deal called it an embarrassing concession
to Athens. But with the VMRO presenting no alternative, and a
breakthrough having eluded the country for decades, a few legislators
proved willing to part ways with their party's leadership and approve
the change.

"I want to say thank you to every MP, and especially to the MPs from
VMRO-DPMNE who put the state's interests above party and personal
interests," Zaev said after the vote, adding that he would "guarantee"
their safety.

Among the 'yes' voters were three VMRO politicians who were granted bail from house arrest this week.

They are facing trial for their alleged involvement in a mob attack on
parliament on April 27, 2017, when VMRO supporters stormed the assembly
in an incident that left Zaev and other legislators injured and

Zaev refused to say on October 19 whether the VMRO legislators granted bail might eventually get amnesty.

"I personally forgive everyone," he told reporters, repeating a call her
made earlier in the week for "reconciliation" over the incident.

He also denied an accusation from VMRO that his government had offered bribes for votes.

In recent weeks, U.S. and EU officials have urges Macedonian legislators
to support for the name-change deal, pitching it as a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Skopje to cement an alliance with the

"With one voice, you are one big step closer to taking your rightful
place in our trans-Atlantic community," European Council President
Donald Tusk said on Twitter after the vote.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn called it "a great day for
democracy in Skopje" and said the votes of "those who crossed the aisle"
are "fully respected."

Before the vote, Russia and the United States traded allegations of interfering in Macedonia's affairs.

Last month, Washington accused Moscow of running a disinformation
campaign to sour the public on the deal, and claimed that resulted in a
low turnout for last month's public referendum on the name change.

Russia has made no secret of opposing Macedonia's NATO aspirations and
this week accused Washington and Brussels of the "crudest interference"
in Skopje's affairs because of their public statements in favor of the
name change.

Zaev's government organized the "consultative" referendum on September
30 in hopes that strong public approval of the new name would help push
it through parliament.

While more than 90 percent of those who voted approved the name-change,
the results were marred by an opposition boycott that resulted in low
turnout of less than 50 percent at the polls.

If the name change gains final approval in Macedonia, Greece's
parliament will then need to ratify the deal before it can go into

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras congratulated Zaev after the vote on
October 19, writing on Twitter: "Tonight's vote is a big step towards
our common success."

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