Macedonia PM salutes courage of Greek deputies

Veles (Macedonia) (AFP) –


Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on Saturday paid tribute to the courage of Greek lawmakers after their vote to approve the renaming of his country to settle a decades-old dispute.

"We all know very well that it wasn't easy," he told a conference in the city of Veles, a day after the 300-seat Greek parliament narrowly approved the measure.

"But it was more than necessary, absolutely necessary, for the two countries and for the two people," he added.

But the vote was only ratified by 153 votes in the Greek parliament's 300-seat chamber and recent opinion polls suggest it remains unpopular with most Greek voters.

Since 1991, Athens had 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.

To make the UN-sponsored agreement final, Greece must now ratify a protocol approving Macedonia's membership of the Western military alliance NATO. This is expected to take place next month.

"Macedonia will become North Macedonia in about two weeks," a Macedonian foreign ministry official who asked to remain anonymous told AFP Saturday.

Athens' ratification of the Prespes accord should also mean that Greece will lift its veto on Macedonia's bid to join the European Union.

Zaev, in his speech, paid tribute to his Greek opposite number Alexis Tsipras for pushing through Friday's vote.

"I also thank the lawmakers of the two countries, these courageous women and men who decided to unite their votes to the victory of the future," he said.

The citizens of both countries would reap the benefits of the agreement -- including those who were opposed to it, he added.

Macedonian lawmakers approved the name change on January 11, again by a narrow margin. A total of 81 lawmakers in the 120-seat assembly, in a vote that required a two-thirds majority.

The Prespes accord will come into effect once Greece officially informs its neighbour of the result of Friday's vote.

Greece will have to notify NATO of the vote, which will allow the alliance to draw up a membership protocol for Macedonia, said the Macedonian foreign ministry source.

Macedonia, for its part, will notify all international institutions of its name change and begin making the necessary changes in its own national institutions.