Macedonia in NATO accession deal after name dispute breakthrough with Greece

ASTANA. KAZINFORM - Macedonia on Wednesday signed a protocol with NATO members paving the way for its eventual accession to the Atlantic Alliance after the Balkan nation agreed to officially change its name to end a dispute with Greece, EFE reports.

The former Yugoslav nation is poised to officially rename itself the Republic of North Macedonia as part of an agreement struck between Skopje and Athens in which the latter agreed to withdraw its veto on Macedonia's accession to both NATO and the European Union.

"Today is a historic day for your country, and a proud day for us all," Jens Stoltenburg, NATO's secretary-general, said during the ceremony at the organization's Brussels headquarters. "I want to congratulate both Skopje and Athens for showing commitment and courage in reaching an agreement on the name issue. We can now look to the future, as Allies start to ratify the Protocol," he added.

On Jan. 25, Greek lawmakers narrowly passed the so-called Prespa agreement, despite widespread protests dominated by nationalists who consider their northern Balkan neighbor, a Slavic nation, to have appropriated Hellenic culture when it adopted the name Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern region of Greece, home to the country's second city, Thessaloníki.

The ongoing opposition from Athens meant Skopje had to report to the United Nations under the official name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but the smoothing over of tensions now set the country on track to become NATO's 30th member.

"This was not inevitable, this was not even very likely to happen," Nikola Dimitrov, the Macedonian foreign minister, said during the ceremony. "This happened because of the leadership of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who paved the way towards this reconciliation, proving that the impossible is actually doable," he added.

He said it was a matter of days until his country officially changed its name to North Macedonia; the announcement is expected to come once the Greek parliament has ratified the NATO Protocol signed Wednesday.

Every NATO member must ratify the protocol in this manner.

"This is big historic day for all our citizens," Zaev wrote on his Facebook page after the ceremony. "Today the biggest security alliance in the world welcomed us. Today we sat on the same table and alliance shoulder to shoulder with our allies."

Formerly a socialist republic within Yugoslavia, Macedonia declared independence in 1991, which is when the naming debacle with Greece resurfaced.

The Macedonia region of Greece, where many locals also identify as Macedonians, although in this sense the demonym is unrelated to the Balkan nation, is rich in ancient Greek culture and was the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

A number of Greeks opposed what they saw as Skopje's false claim to their cultural heritage.

NATO is due to mark its 70th anniversary in December this year and has chosen London as the location for the ceremony.

The United Kingdom's Prime Minister Theresa May said she was proud to host the ceremony, and underscored NATO has underpinning national security.

She said it would give the Alliance a chance to take steps towards modernization.

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