Macedonia parliament finishes first day of debate on name change

Skopje (AFP) - Macedonia's parliament finished its first day of a debate on Monday without reaching a decision on whether to approve a deal to change the country's name, pushing talks aimed at settling a long-running row with Greece into a second day.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev faces an uphill battle to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to rename the country North Macedonia, a move aimed at opening a path to NATO and EU membership.

He needs to flip around 10 MPs in the 120-member assembly to overpower the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party, who staunchly opposes the name change.

After hours of discussion on Monday, the session was set to resume Tuesday at 900 GMT. The debate could last up to 10 days.

If an eventual vote fails, Zaev has said he will call snap elections in a bid to grow his coalition's clout in parliament.

The proposed name change is an effort to end a 27-year stalemate with Greece, which has blocked Macedonia from joining both NATO and the EU because it claims exclusive rights to the name for its northern province.

Athens has promised to lift its veto if the deal is finalised.

But Zaev's task was made tougher by low turnout -- less than 40 percent -- in a referendum on the name change on September 30.

While more than 90 percent of those who voted approved the new name, the lack of enthusiasm has fuelled efforts by opposition MPs to derail the deal in parliament, where it must be ratified.

- Failure 'leaves us in isolation' -

"I think that EU and NATO membership is one of the rare things that unites us," Zaev said in a plea to parliament on Monday.

To reject the deal would "leave us in isolation and with an uncertain future," he added.

The prime minister also called for reconciliation with the opposition and offered "forgiveness" for violence that rocked parliament in April 2017, when a nationalist mob stormed the assembly and injured scores, including Zaev.

Several VMRO-DPMNE politicians and other officials from their former government are on trial over the bloody attack.

Zaev hoped strong backing from the public in last month's referendum would help bring the opposition on board.

He claimed a victory from the poll on the grounds that there was an overwhelming "yes" majority, and that the referendum was only "consultative" in legal terms.

But the opposition, which had urged a boycott of the vote, says the result was invalid because the turnout was below 50 percent.

On Monday MPs from all sides took the podium to debate the proposed amendment changes that would incorporate the new name into the constitution.

"The parliament has no legitimacy to go forward with this procedure," said Ilija Dimovski, an opposition MP with VMRO-DPMNE, repeating his party's claim that the referendum was not successful.

- Pressure on -

Greece has protested the name Macedonia ever since the former Yugoslav republic declared independence in 1991.

Athens says the name implies territorial claims on its own province of Macedonia across the border.

A breakthrough came in June when Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras agreed on the compromise North Macedonia.

Pressure is mounting to wrap up the deal soon so that it can go before Greek parliament before elections there next year.

A change in power in Athens could quash political appetite for the agreement, where a rightwing opposition is also fiercely against the accord.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said Macedonia's failure to pass the deal "would certainly put the country and the government in a difficult position, as the responsibility would lie with it, and not with Greece".

European and US leaders have pitched the name-change as a historic opportunity for Macedonia to tie its future to the West.

"There is no plan B to join NATO without a name agreement," the military alliance's chief Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month.

"The only way to become a member of NATO is for the country to agree on the name issue with Greece," he said.