Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Tear gas bodes ill for Macedonia name deal

  • Police clashed with protesters on both sides of the border near Sunday's signing ceremony (Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis)

Police fired tear gas at protesters in Greece and Macedonia over the weekend, as diplomats signed a name deal to unlock EU enlargement.

Fourteen people, including seven policemen, were hurt in scuffles in Pisoderi, in northern Greece, on Sunday (17 June), where 3,000 people came out to denounce the accord.

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  • Mogherini 'expected' EU to open talks with Macedonia in two weeks (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Police also clashed with some 300 protesters in Bitola, southern Macedonia, the same day.

The unrest coincided with a meeting of Greek and Macedonian leaders on the nearby shores of Lake Prespes in Greece to sign a deal to end the old deadlock over Macedonia's name, opening the door to its future EU and Nato membership.

The clashes followed similar scenes in Athens on Saturday, when 5,000 people rallied outside parliament after Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras won a confidence vote over the affair.

The crowds were much smaller than before, when hundreds of thousands of Greeks protested in February.

But the level of venom highlighted the challenges that the name deal still faced to enter into life.

Greek opponents denounced Tsipras' "fascist regime" and "anti-Hellenic agreement". "Traitors! Traitors!", people chanted.

Macedonian protesters, whipped up by the nationalist VMRO-DPME and United Macedonia parties, raged against "Soros-funded Zaev's Junta police forces", referring to a Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, who is a bogeyman of European populism.

The deal must still be signed by Macedonia's president, ratified by parliament, and endorsed by a referendum, before being ratified by Greek MPs in a process that could take until October.

Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov, from the VMRO-DPME, has said he will not sign.

His veto can be overruled by parliament, where Zaev holds a majority, but the PM will need a super-majority to alter Macedonia's constitution in line with the accord.

Tsipras could also face ratification problems, with his junior governing partner, the Independent Greeks party, and the centre-right New Democracy party, both against the deal.

"Today is a sad day for Greece", New Democracy said on Sunday.

It accused Tsipras of having "given orders" for "[police] to show unprecedented brutality" against people "who were demonstrating their patriotic sensibilities".

"It is opposed by the vast majority of Greeks," New Democracy said, amid a recent poll by the Proto Thema newspaper, which showed that 68 percent of Greeks did not like the agreement.

The deal says that the 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' will change its name to 'Northern Macedonia' and amend its constitution to take out irredentist claims to a Greek region of the same name, angering VMRO-DPME types.

It also says Northern Macedonia's citizens will be able to call themselves 'Macedonians' and call their language 'Macedonian,' in what Greeks nationalists say is a fake claim to Greek heritage.

The breakthrough is to see Greece lift its long-standing veto on Macedonia's EU and Nato entry process.

EU leaders were likely to open accession talks with Skopje at a summit on 28 June, EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini said at Lake Prespes on Sunday.

"I'd expect and hope that the European Council two weeks from now will take that decision," she said.

Nato leaders are also preparing to invite Macedonia to join the alliance at a summit in July.

Wider picture

The developments come amid heightened geopolitical tension with Russia, which stands accused of having tried to stage a coup in Montenegro to stop it from joining the Western bloc, amid other dirty tricks.

But the Kremlin has nothing against Macedonia's EU entry, Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the Greek government in Athens on Friday.

"Aspirations of Balkan countries to join the EU have never been an issue for us," he said.

He added, in a dig at Nato, that "Russia - contrary to certain Western powers - does not aspire to any exclusive rights there, does not dictate a development vector to Balkan countries, does not impose friends or enemies on them."

Amid the turmoil, the Greek and Macedonian leaders paid tribute to diplomacy for having solved one of the region's most stubborn problems.

"It's our historic responsibility to ensure that this step we are making isn't left up in the air," Tsipras said, after the two countries' foreign ministers signed a provisional text.

"We moved mountains," Zaev said.

"Today's my birthday. I told my family this year I don't need any [other] gifts," Matthew Nimetz, a 79-year old UN diplomat, who helped to negotiate the deal, said.

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