(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers in the Republic of Macedonia gave preliminary approval to change the country’s name, signaling the government has the support needed to solve a decades-long dispute with Greece and open its path to NATO and the European Union.
The Balkan state is voting to change its constitution in a move that will shift the advantage to the West in its struggle for influence with Cold War foe Russia over the Balkans, Europe’s most volatile region. It will also fulfill an agreement struck last year with Greece, which pledged to lift its vetoes on the Balkan state’s bids to join the world’s largest trading bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev won a two-thirds majority in the chamber Friday to pass an amendment renaming the ex-Yugoslav country to “The Republic of North Macedonia,” parliament Speaker Talat Xhaferi said in Skopje. Three more amendments need to be approved before lawmakers vote on a final bill.
Then the baton passes to Athens, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is facing resistance from his nationalist ruling partners to his pledge to ratify the deal and sign off on Macedonia’s NATO accession.
Although his ruling coalition lacked sufficient votes, Zaev mustered backing among parties representing the country’s ethnic-Albanian minority and independents who defected from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which opposed the plan.
Another critic is Russia, which objects to the expansion of NATO into the Balkans and has accused the U.S. and the EU of helping force the name change. VMRO-DPMNE boycotted the vote.
The dispute centered around Greece’s insistence that the name "Macedonia" only apply to its northern province, and Tsipras faces a tough task to overcome his nationalist partners in the ruling coalition. They’ve threatened to leave the government in he manages to push through his part of the agreement.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has urged both countries to complete the deal as soon as possible, said in October that Macedonia’s accession talks may be completed by end-January. Zaev’s administration is pushing to complete the deal before the EU Parliament elections in May, when an unpredictable outcome may cloud his country’s integration plan.
--With assistance from Elizabeth Konstantinova.
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