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After decades-long fight with Greece, Macedonia will change name to ‘North Macedonia’

WATCH: Police fired tear gas at protesters gathered at the Greece-Macedonia border on Sunday as foreign ministers from both nations signed an accord to rename the former Yugoslav republic the "Republic of North Macedonia."

The foreign ministers of Greece and Macedonia endorsed an agreement to resolve a long fight over the Macedonia name Sunday during a signing ceremony filled with history and symbolism.

The Greek village of Psarades, located on the shores of Great Prespa Lake, was picked for the occasion since the borders of Greece and Macedonia meet in the water.

The two countries’ prime ministers, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev, were there to seal the deal they reached Tuesday get signed by their foreign ministers, Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov, respectively.

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Macedonians Zaev and Dimitrov arrived from across the lake on a small speedboat. Their Greek counterparts welcomed them with hugs on a jetty that was enlarged for the event.

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Under the agreement, Greece’s northern neighbour will be renamed North Macedonia to address longstanding appropriation concerns in Greece, which has a Macedonia province that was the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

Greece in return will suspend the objections that prevented Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union.

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The two countries’ leaders said the signing would be the start of closer relations between them and an example for all nations in the Balkans region.

Recalling his first meeting with Zaev this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tsipras told him, “Very few believed we would succeed” in ending “26 years of sterile dispute between our countries.”

“This is our own appointment with history,” Tsipras said, adding that Balkan peoples long have suffered from “the poison of chauvinism and the divisions of nationalist hatred.”

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Zaev, for his part, hailed an “end to decades of uncertainty.” Greece and Macedonia would henceforth be “partners and allies” in modeling successful diplomacy for the whole region, he said.

“May we stay as united forever as we are on this day,” Zaev said.

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Following the signing, the officials took a boat to the Macedonian lake resort of Oteshevo for a celebratory lunch.

Police cordoned off all approaches to Psarades to prevent protesters from reaching the site. The agreement has aroused the fury of nationalists on both sides who claim, simultaneously, that it gave too much to the other side.

Supporters of Macedonia’s biggest opposition VMRO-DPMNE protest against the name change deal with Greece in Bitola, Macedonia June 17, 2018.
Supporters of Macedonia’s biggest opposition VMRO-DPMNE protest against the name change deal with Greece in Bitola, Macedonia June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

More than 4,000 Greek nationalists, who oppose another country having the Macedonia name, instead gathered near Pissoderi, a village 40 kilometres (25 miles) away. Banners in the crowd read “There is only one Macedonia and it is Greek” and “Macedonian identity can’t be given away.”

Several hundred marched to a nearby police blockade and began throwing rocks. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. The clashes went on into the afternoon. Greek police said 12 people were injured, including six police officers.

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Church bells in Psarades and nearby villages rang sorrowfully throughout the ceremony. Most of the village’s 60 inhabitants watched from afar, clearly in a sour mood.

Protesters carry a giant Greek national flag during a demonstration against the agreement reached by Greece and Macedonia to resolve a dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name, in Pisoderi village, northern Greece, June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Protesters carry a giant Greek national flag during a demonstration against the agreement reached by Greece and Macedonia to resolve a dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name, in Pisoderi village, northern Greece, June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

“The church bells rang mournfully because something died today in Greece,” said local Orthodox Christian priest Irinaios Hajiefremidis. “They are taking from us our soul, our name.”

Hajiefremidis noted the ethnic and religious conflicts that generations of Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians fought over the land that makes up present-day Macedonia.

“Today, we commemorated Father George Papadopoulos, who was butchered on June 16, 1907 because he did not say Mass in Bulgarian,” he said.

Feelings run as strongly in Macedonia, but there are wide differences of opinion.

“I didn’t follow the signing. Follow what? The capitulation? The vanishing of my identity?” retired doctor Vera Jovanov said. “I didn’t get their approval to be what I am. Nothing will be good in the future. Nothing good for Macedonia.”

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Taxi driver Devan Stojanoski said “whatever we are called,” Macedonia’s people need “a chance for a better life and better standards.”

“I do not care about the name any more. I am so disappointed about everything that I have stopped thinking and caring,” he said.

A demonstration against the deal attracted an estimated 3,000 people in the southern city of Bitola, Macedonian media reported.

The rally was peaceful, but opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski of the VMRO-DPMNE party, the keynote speaker, used fighting words. He reiterated that his party would not support putting the new name in the Macedonian Constitution, one of the terms of the deal.

“I, Hristijan Mickoski, speaking from the heart and with a clear mind…, never, at any price, even if that would cost (my) life, will I support this act of capitulation by Zoran Zaev,” Mickoski told the protesters.

The signing ceremony nonetheless was recognized internationally as a significant event. Among those attending were U.N. Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Rosemary di Carlo, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

The United Nations’ mediator for the name dispute, Matthew Nimetz, also was on hand. Nimetz spent the last 24 years trying to mediate between Greece and Macedonia, first as an envoy of U.S. President Bill Clinton and then representing successive UN secretaries-general.

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Nimetz congratulated Tsipras and Zaev, adding that they demonstrated “political courage and strategic vision” not often found. He received warm applause, not only for his often-frustrated effort to make the name dispute a thing of the past, but because Sunday was his 79th birthday Sunday.

Since Macedonia seceded from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece had objected to its use of the name “Macedonia” because it claimed that implied territorial designs on its own northern province of Macedonia.

Greek objections delayed U.N. recognition of Macedonia until April 1993 and then only as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). In 1995, the two countries signed an interim agreement after Macedonia agreed to modify its flag.

“I like to think positively and really hope this will be better. Finally, the agony ends and (membership in) EU and NATO will become real,” Suzana Eftiska, an art curator in Macedonia, said.

Mironski reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Demetris Nellas contributed from Athens.

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