SKOPJE: Macedonia’s parliament on Monday set September 30 as the date for a referendum on changing the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, a high-stakes vote aimed at resolving the Balkan nation’s long-running row with Greece and opening the door to its entry into NATO and the EU.
Skopje and Athens signed a landmark agreement in June to rename the country in an effort to break a stalemate that has poisoned their relations since 1991 and hobbled Macedonia’s integration with the West.
Greece has objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has its own province of the same name, accusing Skopje of territorial ambitions.
While more than 120 countries, including the US and Russia, have recognised the former Yugoslav republic under the name of “Republic of Macedonia,” Athens has voiced its protest by blocking the country from joining NATO or starting EU accession talks.
The referendum question approved by 68 out of 120 lawmakers on Monday closely links the name-change to Macedonia’s ambitions of stronger ties with the West.
On September 30, the public will be asked: “Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”
However, the nationalist opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, boycotted the vote by leaving the room, signalling a rocky road ahead.
After the deal was struck in June, NATO said Macedonia would be eligible to join the alliance if its new name is accepted by the public.
The European Union, for its part, said last month that accession negotiations would not begin before June 2019.
But progress in resolving the dispute has been challenged by hardliners and large protests in both countries.
Athens has also accused Russia — who is strongly opposed to Macedonia’s NATO ambitions — of trying to sabotage the accord by encouraging demonstrations.
Opponents in Athens are upset that the deal recognises a Macedonian language and nationality, while in Skopje a nationalist right has branded the name-change as assault on the nation’s identity.