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Greece Macedonian relations

Greek parliament approves "North Macedonia" accord

The Macedonian flag alongside the European Union flag on a building in Skopje.
The Macedonian flag alongside the European Union flag on a building in Skopje. RFI/Laurent Geslin

Macedonia has agreed to officially change its name to the ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ effectively ending the 28-year dispute with its neighbour Greece. The landmark decision now opens gate for the former Yugoslav Republic to join the European Union and Nato.

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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who worked on the deal with his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev last year, was able to secure a parliamentary majority on Friday to get the deal approved with support from independent and opposition lawmakers.

“North Macedonia was born today. It will be a friend and an ally of Greece in its efforts for security, stability and mutual development,” tweeted Tsipras shortly after the announcement was made.

He said he hoped that in writing the “new chapter in the history of the Balkans”, nationalist hatred, disputes and clashes would be replaced by friendship, peace and cooperation.

28 years of fighting

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, came the breaking-up of the former Yugoslavia.

This was met with the declaration of independence by the Republic of Macedonia in 1991.

Immediately Greece objected to the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ as there has always been the Greek province of Macedonia, the country’s second most populous area with its provincial capital Thessaloniki.

The province also shares the border with its northern neighbour of the same name.

For that reason, Athens did what it could to delay international recognition of its name and its accession to the United Nations.

Instead, a compromise was agreed upon: ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FRYROM.

Many countries adopted an abbreviated version of this official name, referring to the new country as FYR of Macedonia.

Greece still refused to recognise its neigbhour and imposed a trade embargo that lasted until 1995.

As a landlocked contry with no access to Greek ports, the embargo had a strong impact.

Finally in 1995, an Interim Accord was reached whereby neither country is mentioned by name, which led to a functional normalisation of relations.

FYROM agreed to change its flag that had included the Vergina Sun, which had been adopted by the Greek parliament in 1993 as an official national symbol.

Despite such changes, in 2008 Greece rejected all proposals by the Macedonian government for an acceptable name and vetoed its entry to Nato, and then in 2009 it vetoed the start of Macedonian membership negotiations for the EU.

Nationalism uses

To many outside Greece, the name war may seem trifle. But to Greeks anything but. “It’s a hearts and minds issue with a large segment of the conservative population on both the right and left,” says Asteris Masouras, a freelance journalist based in Thessaloniki.

In exchanges with RFI, he explains that the name issue was “chronically exploited by nationalist politicians” as a means to influence more votes.

As of late, it has also been exploited by the extreme-right to push their agenda and “radicalise protesters", says Masouras.

In February 2018, a major rally was held in Athens outside the parliament to protest against the use of the term Macedonian in any settlement the government was pursuing with the time with the former Yugoslav country.

Moving ahead

Greece’s European Union allies have also welcomed the ratification, which will faclitiate its entry onto the international stage in a big way, through EU and Nato membership.

But in the end, it hopefully will put to rest an itch that has kept Athens awake for the past 28 years.

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