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article image'History on our side,' Macedonia FM says of name change

By Nicolas GAUDICHET and Sally MAIRS (AFP)     Jan 24, 2019 in World

Supporters of Macedonia's name-change deal with Greece are "on the right side of history" and their critics will eventually agree, Macedonia's foreign minister told AFP as the accord approaches the final step of ratification.

Skopje's top diplomat, Nikola Dimitrov, was speaking as the Greek parliament heads towards a tense vote this week on the agreement that would christen his Balkan country the "Republic of North Macedonia".

Dimitrov and his Greek counterpart at the time, Nikos Kotzias, were among the top architects of the June 2018 deal that proposed adding "North" to Macedonia's name in an attempt to extinguish a decades-long row between the neighbours.

For more than a quarter-century, Athens has blocked Skopje from organisations like NATO and the EU because it claims exclusive rights to the name Macedonia for a province in northern Greece.

But the champagne the leaders popped on the day their "Prespa Agreement" was signed was in fact only a prelude to months of fraught politics at home, with nationalist critics in both countries protesting against the name change.

Tens of thousands of Greeks protested in Athens ahead of the vote
Tens of thousands of Greeks protested in Athens ahead of the vote
Aris MESSINIS, AFP

Macedonia pushed through a series of challenging steps to ratify the deal, and now it is Greece's turn to give the final greenlight.

Tens of thousands have protested in Athens ahead of the vote.

Speaking to AFP in his Skopje office, Dimitrov said he believed protesters, including critics in his own country who see the name change as an embarrassing concession, would some day come around.

"I feel that I am definitely on the right side of history on this one, and I think that some years from now... even those who are now angry protesters, will say: 'Looks like they were right'," he told AFP.

- Eyes on EU -

If Greece does approve the deal, Macedonia is expected to be swiftly accepted into NATO.

Then all eyes will turn to Brussels, which last year said it would open EU accession negotiations for Macedonia in June 2019.

Macedonia's government, led by Social Democrat Zoran Zaev, has heavily emphasised the prospect of an EU future in efforts to sell the name change to the public.

Yet there is a sense of waning interest in enlargement among some member states, in particular France, where President Emmanuel Macron has urged new bids to be considered with "great caution and rigour".

For more than a quarter-century  Athens has blocked Skopje from organisations like NATO and the EU b...
For more than a quarter-century, Athens has blocked Skopje from organisations like NATO and the EU because it claims exclusive rights to the name Macedonia for a province in northern Greece
ARIS MESSINIS, AFP

If the EU fails to make good on promises to start Macedonia's membership talks, there will be a "loss of credibility of the whole accession process," Dimitrov warned.

"We will do our best to make it almost embarrassing for any member state not to join the consensus" to open Skopje's bid in June, he added.

Acknowledging that Macedonia has serious reforms to undertake before it would be ready to join the bloc, he added: "What we want is to start the journey".

The name agreement has been a rare positive news story in the Balkans, a region riddled with complex disagreements and tense relations between neighbours.

Dimitrov urged other countries to follow the Prespa model, saying action on a host of problems from diplomatic disputes to education and health must be taken fast to curb the exodus of young people across the region.

Many of the region's entrenched political rows are tied up with historical turf debates, a legacy of frequent territorial changes in a corner of Europe that has suffered numerous wars and foreign interventions.

"By the time we end debate on which is the oldest nation, all of our younger generation will be in Germany and elsewhere," Dimitrov warned of the emigration crisis.

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