Macedonia Kicks Off Fraught Debate on Controversial Name Change

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Macedonian lawmakers prepared Wednesday to debate a motion to change their country's name to settle a decades-long dispute with Greece and open the way to NATO and EU membership.

The switch to "the Republic of North Macedonia" is far from assured as it entails four constitutional amendments and requires the support of two-thirds of the 120-member parliament.

The Social Democrat-led ruling coalition does not itself have those numbers, but a top party official said they had "secured 80 or more of the votes" needed to approve the name change.

"We expect that vote will take place Friday," Aleksandar Kiracovski told journalists.

If the change does go through, Athens has promised to lift its veto on Skopje's attempts to join NATO and the European Union.

Greece has blocked that path since Macedonia broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 because, it says, the name Macedonia should apply solely to its own northern province.

For the Greeks, Macedonia evokes national pride as the cradle of Alexander the Great's ancient empire, a heritage that they guard jealously.

The start of the parliamentary session was delayed to Wednesday afternoon for procedural reasons.

Some 200 Macedonian nationalists opposed to the name change as a surrender to Greek pressure staged a peaceful protest outside parliament, rallied by a nationalist group calling itself "Tvrdokorni", or the "Hardliners".

Leading figures in the opposition rightwing VMRO-DPMNE party, which was in power until 2017, are fighting the change in parliament and at street rallies.

- An amnesty sweetener -

Although Macedonia's consultative referendum in September backed the name change with 90 percent of the vote, critics dismissed the results as invalid given a voter turnout of under one-third of the electorate.

"It is MPs' turn now to voice their views, but I believe there will be a two-thirds majority in order to complete the process," Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said earlier Wednesday.

Zaev does not have the required two-thirds parliamentary majority even with the support of his allies in the ethnic-Albanian parties.

They need some deputies from the VMRO-DPMNE to break ranks and back them, as happened at the parliamentary vote that launched the process in November.

On that occasion, they released three nationalist deputies jailed for their role in an April 2017 brawl in parliament, when several deputies, including Zaev, were assaulted.

In December, the government sweetened the deal further, passing an amnesty law over the protests. Of the 25 people to benefit so far, four have been VMRO-DPMNE deputies.

But even if Macedonia approves the name change, it must still be cleared by the Greek parliament.

Zaev brokered the deal with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, but Tsipras too enjoys only a fragile parliamentary majority, with 153 deputies in the 300-seat parliament.

To complicate matters further, coalition partner Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the leader of a smaller party, opposes the deal and is threatening to resign.

- The Hardliners' curse -

While most deputies in Macedonia's VMRO-DPMNE are dead-set against the name change, the party was shaken by the defections of some of their members in the November vote.

And they are still recovering from the dramatic fall of their former leader, Nikola Gruevski, a vocal opponent of Zaev's deal with Greece.

Former prime minister Gruevski fled Macedonia in November to escape a two-year prison sentence for abuse of power, winning asylum in Hungary.

VMRO-DPMNE said MPs who back the name change would be excluded from the party.

Macedonia's rightwing president, Gjorge Ivanov, has been a vocal opponent of the proposed name change and continues to speak out against it.

But the Macedonian constitution stipulates that if the measure is passed by a two-thirds majority, he has no choice but to sign it into law.

In their call for Wednesday's protest the "Hardliners" issued a chilling curse on their adversaries.

"May those... of Macedonian blood who do not join the fight for Macedonia have no descendants, neither boys nor girls."