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Macedonia agrees to a new name, ending a 27-year dispute with Greece

Even Alexander the Great — or Alexander of Macedon — was drawn into the name dispute. This statue of the ancient warrior is in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Even Alexander the Great — or Alexander of Macedon — was drawn into the name dispute. This statue of the ancient warrior is in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images)

VALLETTA, Malta — Leaders from Greece and Macedonia managed a breakthrough Tuesday in one of Europe’s most intractable foreign policy fights, announcing they had agreed on a new name for a country born 27 years ago from the rubble of Yugoslavia.

If the deal goes through — and the countries still could put it to parliamentary votes or referendums — Macedonia will formally change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, and Greece will drop its opposition to the small Balkan nation joining NATO and the European Union.

What is known in neighboring Macedonia and Greece simply as the “name dispute” has burned for years amid accusations big and small — about cultural appropriation, about national identity, about statues and museums, about airports named for Alexander the Great. Athens accused Skopje of having designs on its northern territory, which is also called Macedonia.

The agreement could help stabilize one of Europe’s poorest and most turbulent regions, one where Russia has battled for influence and discouraged countries from joining NATO. Last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that Macedonia was showing “resistance” to Moscow and that he hoped talks with Greece would “bear fruit soon.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday evening in a statement that the agreement would set Macedonia “on its path to NATO membership. And it will help to consolidate peace and stability across the wider Western Balkans.”

Macedonia joined the United Nations more than 20 years ago on the Greek condition that it refer to itself internationally as FYROM — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Still, many countries, including the United States, recognize the country by the name it uses in its constitution: the Republic of Macedonia.

Analysts say Macedonia and Greece made progress recently with the hope of having a deal in place before an E.U. summit in late June. Negotiations have been brokered with the help of diplomats from the United Nations.

The two countries are led by left-leaning prime ministers who will face domestic opposition over the name change — particularly in Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s coalition partner in government says it doesn’t back the deal. Tsipras — who announced the deal on national television — will face reelection in the next year and a half, and polls suggest his party trails conservatives by a significant margin.

“Greece is tricky,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a fellow at the London School of Economics who studies the Balkans. “Have you taken a look at Macedonia? It’s impoverished. Landlocked. It’s not going to be a threat to Greece.”

Macedonia has tried to win Greek goodwill. This year, it removed the name of Alexander the Great from the airport in its capital.

“Concerning the [Macedonian] people, I don’t know how they will react,” said Denko Maleski, a retired law professor who was Macedonia’s minister of foreign affairs in the early 1990s. “But the government had to make this move to get out of isolation.”

The world needs to pay attention to the crisis over Macedonia’s name

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