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Greek parliament approves Macedonia name change deal

Angelos Tzortzinis, AFP | Greek PM Alexis Tsipras celebrates on January 25, 2019 after parliament approved a deal to change Macedonia’s name.

Greece's parliament on Friday ratified an accord that changes the name of neighbouring Macedonia, unblocking after decades the ex-Yugoslav republic's aspirations to join the EU and NATO.

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A narrow majority of 153 MPs in the 300-seat chamber approved the deal, with several independent lawmakers supporting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's leftist Syriza party.

The vote handed Tsipras a diplomatic triumph over an issue that has sparked protests across Greece.

"With this agreement, Greece regains... its history, its symbols, its tradition," Tsipras told the chamber ahead of the vote during the two-day debate, calling an end to "thirty years of hypocrisy".

He stressed that Macedonia will henceforth "become a friend, an ally, a supporter for cooperation, peace and security in the area".

Macedonia's parliament on January 11 backed a constitutional revision to change the name to the Republic of North Macedonia, but for the deal to go through, it had to be approved by Greek MPs.

The settlement ends a 28-year old row between Athens and Skopje over the use of the term "Macedonia" by renaming the tiny Balkan state "Republic of North Macedonia".

The historic vote was initially scheduled for Thursday, but was postponed because around 230 lawmakers wanted to speak on the issue Friday.

Trapped in history's shadow

Since 1991, Athens has objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because Greece has a northern province of the same name. In ancient times it was the cradle of Alexander the Great's empire, a source of intense pride for Greeks.

Protests have been held in both countries against the agreement -- some of them violent -- and lawmakers in Greece have reported threats and arson attacks against their homes.

A poll released by SKAI TV on Thursday night found 62 percent of respondents oppose the deal, with 27 percent in favour.

A week earlier, another poll in Proto Thema weekly had found 66 percent in opposition.

'New page in history'

Tsipras was closely involved in brokering the June deal with his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev. Both have staked their political careers on its outcome.

Anti-Tsipras daily Ta Nea on Friday said the deal was the result of a "painful compromise" and was full of "pitfalls".

In addition to normalising relations between the two countries, implementation of the agreement will open the door for Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO, hitherto blocked by Athens' veto.

But in Greece, its neighbour's name continues to fuel controversy in politics and society, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Critics say the agreement -- which drops Greece's objections to an official Macedonian language and identity -- opens the way for possible cultural usurpation and trade disputes.

Main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the conservative New Democracy party said the agreement "creates new problems" and "awakens nationalism".

"Your foreign policy is superficial and ignorant... you should be ashamed," he told the government.

But Tsipras insisted Thursday: "We never had a Macedonian language. Alexander the Great spoke Greek."

"Are you afraid of a state that does not even have two percent of our (military) capability and not even six percent of our economic output?," former foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, a signatory of the agreement, asked parliament on Thursday.

Over the weekend, clashes between police and masked protesters left 40 people injured as tens of thousands demonstrated in Athens against the name change.

The government blamed far-right extremists and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party for the violence.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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