Governments in Skopje and Athens have faced a furious backlash as the challenge of solving one of the world’s most bitter diplomatic feuds hit home just a day after Macedonia announced it was willing to change its name.
Hours after the two neighbours declaring they had reached a landmark accord that would see the tiny Balkan state rename itself the Republic of North Macedonia, the nation’s president refused point-blank to sign the deal.
“My position is final and I will not yield to any pressure, blackmail or threats,” president Gjorge Ivanov, who is backed by the nationalist opposition, told a news conference in Skopje.
The agreement had conceded far too much to Greece – even if its ultimate aim was the country’s future membership of Nato and the EU, he said.
The backlash came despite officials in Brussels, London and Washington reacting with unbridled enthusiasm to the breakthrough. Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the accord, saying: “This is really an historical agreement by [politicians] who have shown courage and great political leadership.”
Greece has long argued that the state’s name – adopted when it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991 – conveys thinly disguised irredentist claims on its own northern province of Macedonia.
The appropriation of figures associated with ancient Greek history – not least Alexander the Great – had reinforced fears in a region prone to shifting borders.
But opposition to the deal was also pronounced in Greece.
As in Skopje – where prime minister Zoran Zaev’s leftist coalition was accused of leading the country to national humiliation – prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party was also charged with surrendering cherished national rights.
One newspaper ran a front-page graphic showing Tsipras, the Greek foreign minister and president being shot by firing squad for treason.
The main opposition conservative New Democracy party said it would submit a vote of no-confidence in the government on Friday.
The motion will test the fragile unity of an administration that has seen Tsipras’ progressive Syriza join forces with the small nationalist Anel party.
“We are in a situation that is unprecedented in Greece’s constitutional history. A prime minister without a clear parliamentary mandate willing to commit the country to a reality which will not be possible to change,” said New Democracy’s leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
But in an interview on state TV, Tsipras insisted the deal would benefit the two countries and the region.
“It is an agreement that in two words gives things to us … and it is not a humilitating Versailles agreement [for Skopje]. Even if we could, we would never have wanted that because it would not have been viable.”
Analysts pointed out that Ivanov’s tenure comes up for renewal in April 2019 and his powers as president are limited.
“He cannot stop the deal but that is not to say he won’t give it a bloody good try,” said James Ker-Lindsay, senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “Ultimately this is going to go to referendum – and it is going to be the people who decide.
“The dispute has done so much damage to both countries. What we now have is a fair and reasonable solution and for a lot of ordinary people they will be pleased.”