WASHINGTON - Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said an agreement reached Tuesday with Greece to change his country’s name is detrimental for the Republic of Macedonia and that he would not sign it into law.
In a televised national address, Ivanov said the agreement reached between Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, violates constitutional law. The deal called for Macedonia to be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.
“The government did not have the strength and courage to initiate the building of a common stance and consensus,” he said. “The entire process lacked transparency, and the end result is a testimony to this.”
The vast majority of the members of Ivanov’s opposition VMRO-DPMNE Party have long said they would refuse to support such a deal, which has been in the works the last 20 years.
Although Zaev’s ruling Social Democratic Union (SDU) negotiated the name change, Macedonian law requires a presidential signature to ratify any international agreements.
Greece and Macedonia have been feuding over who gets to use the name since Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Many Greeks say allowing the neighboring country to use the name insults Greek history and implies a claim on the Greek territory also known as Macedonia, a key province in Alexander the Great’s ancient empire.
As a result, Greece has blocked Macedonian efforts to join the EU and NATO. Despite recognition by 137 countries, Macedonia is officially known at the U.N. as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Ivanov’s vow to block legislation to alter the name complicates domestic efforts to secure EU and NATO membership and reflects a political rift among the Balkan nation’s 2 million residents and members of its global diaspora.
Last year’s election of Prime Minister Zaev, which marked Macedonia’s first change in power since 2010, came on the heels of a two-year political crisis dominated by a scandal over corruption and violence in parliament. Determining precisely what percentage of Macedonian’s support resolution of the name dispute depends largely upon who is asked.
A 2018 survey by the Skopje-based Institute for Democracy, which is connected to a Brussels-based consortium of NGO’s that advocate European integration, said an estimated 61 percent of Macedonians support resolving the name dispute if it expedites EU and NATO membership.
A 2018 survey conducted by the United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD), a Washington-based advocacy group whose public statements typically align with the nationalist-leaning opposition, said less than 10 percent of Macedonians support the name change.
“The global Macedonian community held 40 rallies around the world, bringing together over 150,000 people to send a clear message to Macedonia’s government and the Western democratic community of nations: ‘We are Macedonia. Enough is enough,’” said Meto Koloski, president of the UMD, which has called on Skopje to pull out of negotiations completely.
“Macedonians in the diaspora, and anyone who does not agree with a name change, is labeled as hard-line and as ultra-nationalists,” he said in a statement prepared for VOA’s Macedonian Service. “The last time I checked, the right to self-determination and basic human rights of a people are enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, nor anyone else, can dictate what my homeland should be called, or if I am a Macedonian or not.”
Texas-based Maya Panova of the Forum for Democratic Macedonia, a fellow diaspora organization, said that although many Macedonian emigrés welcomed Tuesday’s announcement of a possible resolution, they are also not surprised by Ivanov’s move to block its ratification.
“We welcome the negotiation process to find a resolution to the name dispute, which has been a major impediment to Macedonia’s integration into NATO and the European Union,” she told VOA via email. “The Forum for Democratic Macedonia will support the decision of the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia who, according to the government, will have the opportunity to vote on the matter in a referendum.
“These have been our long-held views,” she added. “We believe that resolving the name dispute will provide opportunities and an impetus for stronger economic development and guarantees the stability of the Republic of Macedonia and the region. Until we see the official documents, we are unable to specifically comment on the details of the agreement.”
On Wednesday in Athens, where opponents object to any use of the term “Macedonia” in their northern neighbor’s name, the head of Greece’s main opposition party called on the president to intervene so the deal can be debated in parliament before it is signed, instead of after.
Like many observers, Tsipras’ supporters believe passage of a deal would stabilize one of Europe’s most impoverished and politically turbulent regions, one where Washington legislators such as Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, have called for substantially strengthened U.S. commitments to counter Russian efforts to influence elections and discourage NATO membership.
Tsipras and Zaev each face re-election campaigns in the coming 18 months.
European Council President Donald Tusk congratulated both sides on Tuesday’s agreement, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the deal and Macedonia’s possible membership “will help to consolidate peace and stability across the wider Western Balkans.”
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the settlement will have “positive repercussions” in Europe and beyond, and hopes it will inspire others to negotiate deals to end other “protracted conflicts.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the deal will bolster regional security and prosperity and that the United States congratulates both prime ministers for their “vision, courage and persistence.”
Zaev on Tuesday said he will put the deal to a vote in a referendum, while the Greek parliament will consider ratification before the end of the year.
Tsipras said if Macedonia does not change its constitution to reflect the new name, Greece will again block Macedonian membership in NATO and the EU.
In 1995, Macedonians changed their flag, removing the Vergina Sun image that Greece claimed as its own.
This story originated in VOA's Macedonian Service.