Balkan Nation Closes In on Key Vote to Open Doors to NATO, EU - EcoFinBiz Blog

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Balkan Nation Closes In on Key Vote to Open Doors to NATO, EU

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(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia will try to clear the biggest hurdle to joining NATO and the European Union this month with a decisive vote to change its name that will either open the path to membership or slam the door shut.

The former Yugoslav state is at the center of a tussle for influence over Europe’s most volatile region. Russia, which still sees the country and other ex-communist states as its sphere of influence, objects to the further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It has found allies opposing the name change among nationalist political forces in both Macedonia and neighboring Greece, which must also agree.

Lawmakers begin debate Wednesday on changes to the constitution to end a decades-long dispute with Athens by renaming the country to "the Republic of North Macedonia." In exchange, Greece, which claims the name "Macedonia" should apply only to its northern province, has promised to lift its veto over its neighbor’s membership bids.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is hoping for a repeat of October, when he won a two-thirds vote in the 120-member parliament to get the process started.

“Zaev will likely get the necessary majority, and then if the country gets into NATO quickly, this will be a stimulus for domestic reforms desired by the EU,” Dimitar Bechev, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said by phone. “If the vote fails though, the government won’t survive.”

Read More: Ending the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

Zaev said last week he had 76 of the 80 votes he needs to succeed. He’s in talks with parties that represent Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian minority, who supported the October vote, for the rest, with their deliberations focused on language that recognizes the nation’s multi-ethnic character.

If the vote fails to pass, it will torpedo any hope of the country of 2 million completing accession and may give rise to new tensions in a region that’s still smarting from Yugoslavia’s bloody 1990s breakup.

Russia has accused the U.S. and EU of intervening in Macedonia’s affairs and of helping force the constitutional changes. Another opponent of the deal is Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who has refused to sign it, citing a threat to his country’s national identity.

If the vote succeeds, Greece must ratify the agreement and sign off on Macedonia’s NATO accession process before the name change becomes valid. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, who governs with a nationalist party that opposes the deal, has promised to secure majority.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that Macedonia’s accession talks can be completed by end-January. Zaev’s administration is pushing to finalize the deal before the European Parliament elections in May, when an unpredictable outcome may cloud his country’s integration plans.

--With assistance from Eleni Chrepa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Slav Okov in Sofia at sokov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Michael Winfrey, Elizabeth Konstantinova

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