Against the scenic backdrop of the Prespes Lake district in northern Greece, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and his counterpart from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Nikola Dimitrov, on Sunday signed a landmark agreement to change the Balkan country’s name in the presence of their prime ministers and foreign officials.
In a joint appearance with FYROM premier Zoran Zaev, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described the agreement as “patriotic and mutually beneficial,” and stressed the importance of safeguarding it.
“We have a historic responsibility to ensure this agreement is not left up in the air,” Tsipras said.
The deal, under which FYROM would be renamed North Macedonia, must pass a referendum in FYROM and approval in both countries’ parliaments before it can be enforced.
Zaev also hailed the deal, saying it “put an end to the longstanding problems which aggravated our bilateral ties.”
“Our two countries must leave behind the past and look to the future,” he said. “We were bold enough to take a step forward.”
The United Nations official who has mediated in the name dispute for some 25 years, Matthew Nimetz, congratulated Greek and FYROM officials on the deal, which he described as “honorable” and an example of “how neighbors can solve a problem if they really work at it.”
Noting that it was his birthday, he said his “big gift” was the signing of the landmark deal.
The event was also attended by Europe’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
“It is a very good day for both countries, it is a very good day for the EU, for Europe and of course for the Balkans,” Mogherini said.
While foreign officials hailed the deal in the placid lakeside ceremony, protesters expressed their objection to it in the nearby village of Pisoderi. A crowd raised a banner saying “Macedonia is Greek” and tried to break a police cordon. They were pushed back by officers who fired tear gas.
The protests followed a larger demonstration in Athens on Saturday night, when Tsipras survived a vote of no confidence against his government.
Overall, public opposition to the deal appears to remain strong even though the size of demonstrations has dwindled since a large rally against a compromise was held in the capital in February.
Almost seven in 10 respondents in a poll published on Saturday, meanwhile, are opposed to the name North Macedonia.
The poll, conducted by Marc for the Proto Thema newspaper, found that 73.2 percent of respondents said they disagree with the use of the term “Macedonia” in the new name and 68.3 percent said they are opposed to the deal as presented by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras last week.
Moreover, 49 percent of respondents who claimed they had voted for ruling SYRIZA said they were also opposed to the accord.