Macedonia lawmakers green light process for name change

Lawmakers in Macedonia on Friday backed a landmark proposal to amend the constitution, allowing the country to change its name and join NATO.

The session was delayed for more than 10 hours amid a heated confrontation. Parliament eventually voted in favor of the proposal — a key step in accepting the deal struck with neighboring Greece in June.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democrat government struggled to woo support from the conservative opposition members needed to achieve the two-thirds majority required in the 120-seat house.

"Together we have made history today," Zaev said. "Our journey toward a better future, toward European Union and NATO membership, has just begun ... We will strive for reconciliation, and national unity."

With strong backing from Western leaders, Zaev is leading a campaign to rename the country North Macedonia, resolving a longstanding dispute with Greece that will allow the country to join NATO.

Top EU official Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Tweeted: "With one voice, you are one big step closer to taking your rightful place in our trans-Atlantic community."

Conservatives in Macedonia vehemently oppose the name change and boycotted a referendum last month on the issue.

Igor Janushev, secretary general of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said conservative lawmakers had endured a campaign of "political intimidation" ahead of the vote and claimed that three lawmakers had been offered bribes of between 250,000 and 2 million euros.

The government rejected the allegations and said it would respond with legal action.

Following Friday's vote, the amendment process must formally start within the next two weeks.

Zaev would have been forced to call an early election if the government had lost the vote.

The name-change would end a 27-year dispute with Greece, which claims its neighbor's current name implies claims on its own adjoining province of Macedonia, and on ancient Greek heritage.

Athens has said it will block Macedonia's accession to NATO and the European Union unless it goes ahead with the constitutional amendments. Western officials strongly back the deal, which would reduce Russian influence in the Balkans.

After the vote, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Tweeted in English: "Congratulations my friend ZoranZaev! Tonight's vote is a big step towards our common success. A very important step to a peaceful and prosperous future for our people!"


Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed