The Republic of Macedonia will try to clear the biggest hurdle to joining NATO and the European Union this month with a decisive vote to change its name that will either open the path
to membership or slam the door shut.
The former Yugoslav state is at the centre of a tussle for influence over Europe’s most volatile region. Russia, which still sees the country and other ex-communist states as its sphere of influence, objects to the further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It has found allies opposing the name change among nationalist political forces in both Macedonia and neighbouring Greece, which must also agree.
Lawmakers begin debate on changes to the constitution to end a decades-long dispute with Athens by renaming the country to “the Republic of North Macedonia”. In exchange, Greece, which claims the name “Macedonia” should apply only to its northern province, has promised to lift its veto over its neighbour’s membership bids.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is hoping for a repeat of October, when he won a two-thirds vote in the 120-member parliament to get the process started.
“Zaev will likely get the necessary majority, and then if the country gets into NATO quickly, this will be a stimulus for domestic reforms desired by the EU,” Dimitar Bechev, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said.
Zaev said he had 76 of the 80 votes he needs to succeed. He’s in talks with parties that represent Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian minority, who supported the October vote, for the rest, with their deliberations focussed on language that recognises the nation’s multi-ethnic character.
If the vote fails to pass, it will torpedo any hope of the country of 2 million completing accession and may give rise to new tensions in a region that’s still smarting from Yugoslavia’s bloody 1990s breakup.
Russia has accused the US and EU of intervening in
Macedonia’s affairs and of helping force the constitutional changes. Another opponent of the deal is Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who has refused to sign it, citing a threat to his country’s national identity.