IT WAS decades-long dispute which was so fierce it sparked violent protests across the world, even here in Australia.
But overnight, a historic agreement reached between Greece and Macedonia means the bitter 27-year name dispute that had kept the smaller and younger country out of international institutions is finally over.
Many in Greece objected to the use of the name Macedonia for the small European nation of two million people to its north because it was shared by the Ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great. It is also contentious because the name is used by a nearby Greek region.
This anger reached dramatic levels earlier this year when more than 100,000 people gathered in Athens’ central square — chanting “Hands off Macedonia!” and “Macedonia belongs to Greece!”
They were protesting over the compromise, which has finally been agreed on today, meaning the former Yugoslav republic could use “Macedonia” in its official name.
Ugly tensions even flared in Melbourne, where signs reading “Greeks are Turks”, “F*** Greece for unfairness” and “F***ing racists” appeared on freeway bridges and Greek Orthodox churches in March.
However, today’s development has not gone down too well with tens of thousands of citizens in both countries.
THERE’S NO GOING BACK’
Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev announced the disputed country’s new name for both domestic and international purposes would be Republic of North Macedonia. The agreement means Macedonia will also amend its constitution to reflect the change as part of the deal.
“This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbours and puts an end to the irredentism which their current constitutional name implies,” Mr Tsipras said, in a televised address.
“Macedonia cannot and will not be able in the future to claim any connection with the Ancient Greek civilisation of Macedonia.”
Speaking at a news conference in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Zaev described the deal as a “historic agreement of the century” and warned his countrymen: “there is no way back” from the historic deal.
“We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute … that has been drowning the country,” he said, adding that the deal “will strengthen the Macedonian identity.”
WHY IS THE NAME SO CONTROVERSIAL?
The Republic of Macedonia was formed when it seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991. More than 130 countries, including the UK, US, Russia and China recognised it by its former constitutional name Republic of Macedonia.
The country, the size of Tasmania, occupies a controversial place in Greek and Balkan history, subject to claims and counterclaims about identity, history and culture.
Greater Macedonia was divided following the end of the Second Balkan War and the signing of the Bucharest Treaty in 1913. Macedonians say they’ve been persecuted ever since.
Ancient Macedonia was the base of warrior king Alexander’s empire, but under the Romans the province of Macedonia was expanded to include territory spanning Macedonia, as well as Bulgaria and Albania.
Some Greeks have accused Macedonians, who speak a Slavic language, of appropriating aspects of Greek culture. An eight-storey high statue resembling Alexander in the Macedonian capital of Skopje caused a fuss in 2011. Macedonian authorities insist that the statue is of a “warrior on a horse” rather than the Ancient Greek hero.
CELEBRATIONS AND ANGER
Today, NATO and European Union officials welcomed the breakthrough, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said would help consolidate regional peace and stability.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the agreement as “a demonstration of leadership to the wider region and beyond” and hopes it will inspire others involved in drawn-out conflicts “to work towards negotiated settlements without further delay.”
However, both prime ministers faced widespread dissent at home. Previous attempts at a compromise have led to large protests, threatened to split Greece’s governing coalition and provoked a rift between Macedonia’s prime minister and president.
And main opposition parties in both countries rejected the agreement.
In Greece, the right wing independent Greeks party, which is in Mr Tsipras’s governing coalition partner, has said it would oppose the agreement in a parliamentary vote — meaning the left wing prime minister will need to seek support from political opponents.
Meanwhile, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said earlier in the day that he remained opposed to writing the new name into the constitution, a move intended to show the change is permanent and binding for domestic and international use.
The main opposition party in Macedonia, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, accused Zaev of “capitulating” to Greece.
“In essence, the (deal) is acceptance of all Greek positions,” VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said.
In Athens, conservative main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged Tsipras not to go ahead with the agreement.
“This is a bad agreement that is in conflict with the majority of the Greek people,” he said.
Organisers of past rallies in Greece’s main cities against a compromise with Macedonia also expressed outrage at the deal, with one accusing Tsipras of “high treason”.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Mr Tsipras said the deal would be first signed by the two countries’ foreign ministers and then ratified by Macedonia’s parliament. Mr Zaev added that the deal would be signed this weekend, and a voter referendum would be held in the fall.
Greece will then back invitations for Macedonia to join NATO and start negotiations on joining the EU. However, Tsipras said, this will be contingent on Macedonia completing the constitutional changes.
“In other words, if the constitutional amendment is not successfully completed, then the invitation to join NATO will be automatically rescinded and the accession talks with the European Union will not start,” he said.
— with AP