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SKOPJE, Macedonia – A deal to end a decades-long dispute over whether Greece can lay sole claim to Macedonia as a place name easily passed a ratification vote Wednesday in the parliament of neighboring nation Macedonia.
Lawmakers approved a bill to rename their country North Macedonia, with 69 votes in favor in the 120-member parliament. The main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party boycotted the session.
The deal — which requires several more steps in the coming months to be implemented — has angered opposition parties and hardliners in both Greece and Macedonia, who claim their respective prime ministers conceded too much in reaching the agreement.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told lawmakers that Skopje and Athens have reached a "dignified and acceptable" agreement for both countries.
"We have not made a gift to anyone," Zaev said during Wednesday's debate. "Our language and identity is Macedonian."
The dispute dates from shortly after Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece argued the name "Macedonia" implied territorial aspirations on its own northern province of the same name, birthplace of the ancient warrior king Alexander the Great, and on ancient Greek heritage.
Zaev told lawmakers the agreement gains Macedonia "one more strategic partner" in its southern neighbor, and boosts his country's security and stability. It will also allow Macedonia to pursue its dream of joining NATO and the European Union. Until now, Greece, which is a member of both organizations, had been blocking that prospect pending a deal on the name-change.
But the deal has also caused a major rift between Zaev's left-led government and the country's conservative president, Gjorge Ivanov, who has said he will not sign off on the parliamentary ratification which he strongly opposes.
That would force parliament to repeat the ratification vote, after which Ivanov would no longer be able to block the process.
Zaev indicated in a TV interview late Tuesday that he will go one step further and try to use parliament's power to remove the president from office. That would force presidential elections within months.
According to Macedonia's constitution, a two-thirds majority of 81 votes in parliament are needed for that, which Zaev would have trouble raising.
Ivanov on Wednesday dared Zaev to go ahead with his removal.
"I call on Zaev ... to immediately initiate (the) procedure" he said in a written statement to the media.
Macedonians will be asked to cast ballots on the deal through a fall referendum. If voters back the agreement, lawmakers would have to amend the constitution to formalize the name change. Once that is done, the deal would go to Greece's parliament for ratification.
The last task poses a challenge for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose nationalist junior partner in governing, the Independent Greeks, is against the deal, as are most opposition parties.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, said Wednesday he plans to ask Tsipras for ratification to require an enhanced majority of 180 of parliament's 300 lawmakers.
That threshold would render ratification well-nigh impossible, as the Independent Greeks have already said they would vote against it.
Without his junior partner, Tsipras can count on 145 lawmakers and is unlikely to raise another 35 votes from opposition lawmakers.
Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, contributed.