SKOPJE (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Macedonians to embrace a deal with Greece over the country’s name at a referendum later this month, in order to secure membership of NATO and European Union.
Macedonia has set Sept. 30 for the referendum on both the membership bids and its agreement with Greece to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
After meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Skopje on Saturday, Merkel said the issues were “very closely linked”.
“Without a solution to this (name) question, the other two things can’t happen,” she told journalists.
In June, NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the name deal.
Greece, a member of both NATO and the EU, has refused to accept the Balkan country’s name, saying it implies territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia and amounts to an appropriation of its ancient civilisation. It has blocked the country’s membership bids.
Zaev’s government, elected in 2017, pushed for an agreement with Greece and the two sides agreed on the new name in June.
Macedonian nationalists, including President Gjorge Ivanov, oppose the deal however, saying it is against the constitution.
Zaev said Merkel’s visit sent “a strong message and encouragement” to citizens ahead of the referendum “to decide their future.”
“The future could be, with a successful outcome of the referendum, that you are both member of NATO as well as belonging to the family of EU states,” Merkel said.
Her visit comes 27 years to the day after Macedonia declared independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. It was the only former Yugoslav republic to break away peacefully.
Zaev’s government needs a two-third majority in parliament to implement the constitutional changes. If the deal with Greece is rejected in the referendum, it would be more difficult for the government to win this majority.
According to recent opinion polls, more than 50 percent of people are likely to vote, with the majority supporting the membership bids and the name deal.
(Reporting by Kole Casule and Paul Carrel in Berlin; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Clelia Oziel)