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Bigger is better? NATO opens up to Macedonia as rifts linger

July 11, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO has invited Macedonia to start membership talks, a step toward adding its 30th member despite Russia’s objection and a show of unity at a time of growing discord between the Trump administration and Europe.

The invitation Wednesday came at a NATO summit at which U.S. President Donald Trump demanded more military spending by some allegedly deadbeat allies, as countries like Canada and Britain committed more to new manpower than new money.

Macedonia was given a pathway to membership on condition that it finally iron out its years-long standoff over its name with Greece, which took a big step forward with their deal last month that could rename the country North Macedonia.

Macedonian voters and the Greek parliament still must sign off on that deal, which could also dissipate any Greek objections to the Skopje government’s ambition to join the European Union. “Once all national procedures have been completed to finalize the name agreement, the country will join NATO as our 30th member,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “It cannot become a member if it doesn’t change its name. That’s in a way the simple choice, and that’s up to the people.”

Russia, NATO’s most prominent rival, has bemoaned the possible addition of another alliance member — reviving Cold War-style tensions. Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev hailed the invitation but noted objections from Moscow.

“Very obviously, they are against our integration in NATO,” he said during a panel talk on the sidelines of the summit. Zaev alleged “some activities” by Russia had attempted to thwart the deal, but he did not elaborate.

The overture toward expansion came amid a backdrop of strain in NATO, notably continued pressure by Trump on allies to shoulder a bigger share of military spending — including a swipe at Germany for being “captive” to Russia.

Instead of new money, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his country will lead NATO’s new military training mission in Iraq, with up to 250 troops. Canada isn’t meeting an informal alliance target for member states to devote at least 2 percent of their economic output to defense spending.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, which is meeting that target, announced it would send 440 military personnel for a similar training mission in Afghanistan — by far the alliance’s biggest foreign venture.

The pledges came as NATO has been keen to play a major role in the fight against terrorism and demonstrate its resilience against an aggressive Russia that has annexed Crimea and sown instability in Ukraine.

Canada’s offer is part of NATO’s attempt to help Iraq rebuild and ensure the Islamic State group can’t gain a new foothold there. The commitment was part of the alliance’s expansion of the number of trainers from around a dozen currently to several hundred operating out of the capital, Baghdad.

“Those sorts of tangible elements are at the heart of what NATO stands for,” Trudeau said, in an apparent bid to outflank Trump’s call for money. “You can try and be a bean counter and look at exactly how much this and how much money that, but the fundamental question is: is what you’re doing actually making a difference?

The British commitment in Afghanistan came as NATO agreed to fund the Afghan army through 2024. Britain’s addition will beef up efforts that are already training some 16,000 troops. “I think that shows when NATO calls, the U.K. is one of the first to step up,” May told reporters.

In another show of resolve to Russia, the leaders rubber-stamped a plan to ready a crisis response contingent that can be rapidly deployed — 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships within 30 days. It also endorsed two new command headquarters — in Norfolk, Virginia and Ulm, Germany — to help better move troops and equipment across the Atlantic and through Europe.

Questioned repeatedly about Trump’s attacks on European allies and Canada, Stoltenberg acknowledged trans-Atlantic differences, but refused to say whether the U.S. leader’s attacks were damaging the alliance.

“My task is to make sure that we stay together, so if I started to freely reflect on all possibilities, then I would undermine the unity of this alliance,” Stoltenberg said. Trump’s “America First” policies have exposed major differences between the U.S. and many parts of Europe on issues as diverse as climate change, trade and tariff policies, and the Iran nuclear deal that the U.S. leader has rejected.

Stoltenberg sought to depict his alliance as a force for unity that gives Washington a way to project power from Europe into Asia, the Middle East and Africa. “A strong NATO is good for Europe and good for the United States,” he said. “Two world wars and a Cold War taught us that we are stronger together than apart.”

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Northern light: Macedonia makes name change deal with Greece

June 12, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece and Macedonia reached an historic agreement Tuesday to end a bitter 27-year name dispute that had kept the smaller and younger country out of international institutions such as NATO, the two countries’ prime ministers announced.

Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev said the former Yugoslav republic’s new name for both domestic and international purposes would be Republic of North Macedonia. Macedonia will also amend its constitution to reflect the change as part of the deal.

The nationality of the country’s citizens will be listed on official documents in English as “Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia,” Greek officials said. NATO and European Union officials welcomed the breakthrough, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said would help consolidate regional peace and stability.

Greece had long demanded that its northern neighbor change or modify its name to avoid any claim to the territory and ancient heritage of the region in northern Greece named Macedonia — birthplace of ancient warrior king Alexander the Great.

The current prime ministers’ attempts to end the dispute have faced dissent in both countries, leading to large protests by opponents of a compromise, threatening to split Greece’s governing coalition and provoking a rift between Macedonia’s prime minister and president.

And main opposition parties in both countries rejected the agreement. Zaev said the deal would be signed this weekend, and a voter referendum would be held in the fall. In a televised address, Tsipras said the 140 countries which had recognized the Balkan state simply as Macedonia would now recognize it as Republic of North Macedonia.

“This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors and puts an end to the irredentism which their current constitutional name implies,” he said. He added that Macedonia “cannot and will not be able in the future to claim any connection with the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia.”

Speaking at a news conference in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Zaev described the deal as a “historic agreement of the century.” “We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute … that has been drowning the country,” he said, adding that the deal “will strengthen the Macedonian identity.”

On the timeline of the deal, Tsipras said that it would be first signed by the two countries’ foreign ministers and then ratified by Macedonia’s parliament. Greece will then back invitations for Macedonia to join NATO and start negotiations on joining the EU. However, Tsipras said, this will be contingent on Macedonia completing the constitutional changes.

“In other words, if the constitutional amendment is not successfully completed, then the invitation to join NATO will be automatically rescinded and the accession talks with the European Union will not start,” he said.

The deal was welcomed by EU officials. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted his “sincere congratulations” to Tsipras and Zaev. “I am keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to you, the impossible is becoming possible,” he said.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and commissioner Johannes Hahn issued a joint statement congratulating the two prime ministers “in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe.”

They said they looked forward to accession negotiations beginning with Skopje in June. The United Nations envoy who mediated the dispute for two decades congratulated Tsipras and Zaev for resolving their differences.

Matthew Nimetz said in a statement he had “no doubt this agreement will lead to a period of enhanced relations between the two neighboring countries and especially between their people.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the agreement as “a demonstration of leadership to the wider region and beyond” and hopes it will inspire others involved in drawn-out conflicts “to work towards negotiated settlements without further delay,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

However, both prime ministers faced dissent at home. Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose right-wing Independent Greeks party is Tsipras’ governing coalition partner, said he would oppose an agreement in a parliamentary vote, meaning the left-wing prime minister will need to seek support from political opponents.

In Skopje, meanwhile, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said earlier in the day that he remained opposed to writing the new name into the constitution, a move intended to show the change is permanent and binding for domestic and international use.

The main opposition party in Macedonia, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, accused Zaev of “capitulating” to Greece. “In essence, the (deal) is acceptance of all Greek positions,” VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said.

In Athens, conservative main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged Tsipras not to go ahead with the agreement. “This is a bad agreement that is in conflict with the majority of the Greek people,” he said.

Organizers of past rallies in Greece’s main cities against a compromise with Macedonia also expressed outrage at the deal, with one accusing Tsipras of “high treason.” “He was Skopje’s best negotiator,” Michael Patsikas told The Associated Press.

This version has been corrected to show that the English translation of the country’s official name, which was announced in Greek and Macedonian, will be Republic of North Macedonia, not Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Mironski contributed from Skopje, Macedonia. Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, contributed.

New protest in northern Greece against Macedonia name deal

June 27, 2018

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — About 2,500 people, waving Greek flags and chanting “Macedonia is Greek,” marched through the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki Wednesday to protest a preliminary deal over neighboring Macedonia’s name.

The protest was organized by the same hard-line groups that staged large rallies earlier this year in Thessaloniki and Athens against a potential compromise in the negotiations that ended with an agreement this month.

A group of protesters threw paint at a Holocaust memorial, and another damaged a cafeteria. Similar protests have turned violent in the past. Under the deal — which will take months to be finalized — Macedonia will be renamed “North Macedonia.”

It would end a 27-year dispute that started after Greece objected to its northern neighbor’s name, saying it implied claims on the adjacent Greek province of Macedonia and to Greece’s ancient heritage.

Hardliners on both sides of the border oppose the agreement, saying it offers too big concessions to the other country.

Border lake backdrops sealing of Greece, Macedonia name deal

June 17, 2018

PSARADES, Greece (AP) — The foreign ministers of Greece and Macedonia endorsed an agreement to resolve a long fight over the Macedonia name Sunday during a signing ceremony filled with history and symbolism.

The Greek village of Psarades, located on the shores of Great Prespa Lake, was picked for the occasion since the borders of Greece and Macedonia meet in the water. The two countries’ prime ministers, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev, were there to see the deal they reached Tuesday get signed by their foreign ministers, Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov, respectively.

Macedonians Zaev and Dimitrov arrived from across the lake on a small speedboat. Their Greek counterparts welcomed them with hugs on a jetty that was enlarged for the event. Under the agreement, Greece’s northern neighbor will be renamed North Macedonia to address longstanding appropriation concerns in Greece, which has a Macedonia province that was the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

Greece in return will suspend the objections that prevented Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union. The two countries’ leaders said the signing would be the start of closer relations between them and an example for all nations in the Balkans region.

Recalling his first meeting with Zaev this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tsipras told him, “Very few believed we would succeed” in ending “26 years of sterile dispute between our countries.”

“This is our own appointment with history,” Tsipras said, adding that Balkan peoples long have suffered from “the poison of chauvinism and the divisions of nationalist hatred.” Zaev, for his part, hailed an “end to decades of uncertainty.” Greece and Macedonia would henceforth be “partners and allies” in modeling successful diplomacy for the whole region, he said.

“May we stay as united forever as we are on this day,” Zaev said. Following the signing, the officials took a boat to the Macedonian lake resort of Oteshevo for a celebratory lunch. Police cordoned off all approaches to Psarades to prevent protesters from reaching the site. The agreement has aroused the fury of nationalists on both sides who claim, simultaneously, that it gave too much to the other side.

More than 4,000 Greek nationalists, who oppose another country having the Macedonia name, instead gathered near Pissoderi, a village 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. Banners in the crowd read “There is only one Macedonia and it is Greek” and “Macedonian identity can’t be given away.”

Several hundred marched to a nearby police blockade and began throwing rocks. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. The clashes went on into the afternoon. Greek police said 12 people were injured, including six police officers.

Church bells in Psarades and nearby villages rang sorrowfully throughout the ceremony. Most of the village’s 60 inhabitants watched from afar, clearly in a sour mood. “The church bells rang mournfully because something died today in Greece,” said local Orthodox Christian priest Irinaios Hajiefremidis. “They are taking from us our soul, our name.”

Hajiefremidis noted the ethnic and religious conflicts that generations of Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians fought over the land that makes up present-day Macedonia. “Today, we commemorated Father George Papadopoulos, who was butchered on June 16, 1907 because he did not say Mass in Bulgarian,” he said.

Feelings run as strongly in Macedonia, but there are wide differences of opinion. “I didn’t follow the signing. Follow what? The capitulation? The vanishing of my identity?” retired doctor Vera Jovanov said. “I didn’t get their approval to be what I am. Nothing will be good in the future. Nothing good for Macedonia.”

Taxi driver Devan Stojanoski said “whatever we are called,” Macedonia’s people need “a chance for a better life and better standards.” “I do not care about the name any more. I am so disappointed about everything that I have stopped thinking and caring,” he said.

A demonstration against the deal attracted an estimated 3,000 people in the southern city of Bitola, Macedonian media reported. The rally was peaceful, but opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski of the VMRO-DPMNE party, the keynote speaker, used fighting words. He reiterated that his party would not support putting the new name in the Macedonian constitution, one of the terms of the deal.

“I, Hristijan Mickoski, speaking from the heart and with a clear mind…, never, at any price, even if that would cost (my) life, will I support this act of capitulation by Zoran Zaev,” Mickoski told the protesters.

A nighttime demonstration outside Macedonia’s parliament in the capital of Skopje turned violent when a group of people described by police and media as soccer hooligans started pelting officers with rocks and flares and tried to break through the police cordon. Police used tear gas and stun grenades to beat back the crowd and detained one person. Seven police officers and three protesters were reported injured as the atmosphere remained tense late Sunday.

The signing ceremony was recognized internationally as a significant event. Among those attending were U.N. Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Rosemary di Carlo, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

The United Nations’ mediator for the name dispute, Matthew Nimetz, also was on hand. Nimetz spent the last 24 years trying to mediate between Greece and Macedonia, first as an envoy of U.S. President Bill Clinton and then representing successive UN secretaries-general.

Nimetz congratulated Tsipras and Zaev, adding that they demonstrated “political courage and strategic vision” not often found. He received warm applause, not only for his often-frustrated effort to make the name dispute a thing of the past, but because Sunday was his 79th birthday Sunday.

Since Macedonia seceded from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece had objected to its use of the name “Macedonia” because it claimed that implied territorial designs on its own northern province of Macedonia.

Greek objections delayed U.N. recognition of Macedonia until April 1993 and then only as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). In 1995, the two countries signed an interim agreement after Macedonia agreed to modify its flag.

“I like to think positively and really hope this will be better. Finally, the agony ends and (membership in) EU and NATO will become real,” Suzana Eftiska, an art curator in Macedonia, said.

Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris reported this story in Psarades, Greece, and AP writer Jasmina Mironski reported from Skopje, Macedonia. AP writer Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed to this report.

Greece, Macedonia close in on name-dispute deal amid dissent

June 12, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Officials in Greece and Macedonia said Tuesday they are close to reaching a draft agreement to resolve a decades-old name dispute — but the proposed compromise is facing dissent in both countries.

The prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, were due to have a second consecutive day of talks on the phone later Tuesday. Greece wants the former Yugoslav republic to change or modify its name to avoid any claim to the territory and ancient heritage of Greece’s region of Macedonia — birthplace of ancient warrior king Alexander the Great.

A resolution of the dispute would see Greece lift its objections to Macedonia’s accession to NATO. But Greek opponents of the deal — that would likely rename the Balkan republic as “North” or “New” Macedonia — say it would not go far enough.

Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose right-wing Independent Greeks party is Tsipras’ coalition partner, said he would oppose an agreement in a parliamentary vote, meaning the left-wing prime minister will need to seek support from political opponents.

In Skopje, meanwhile, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said he remained opposed to a constitutional change that would likely be included in the draft deal, to provide an assurance that the name change was permanent and binding for domestic and international use.

Macedonian court sentences former PM Gruevski to 2 years

May 23, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — A Macedonian criminal court sentenced former conservative prime minister Nikola Gruevski to two years in prison Wednesday for unlawfully influencing officials at the interior ministry over the purchase of a luxury bulletproof car.

The court ruled that Gruevski, who served as prime minister during 2006-2016, influenced the officials in the 2012 purchase of his Mercedes at an estimated cost of 600,000 euros (around $700,000.) The 47-year-old Gruevski denied any wrongdoing. He was not present in court when the verdict was read and will remain free pending appeal.

He was convicted using evidence from audio material collected during a massive wiretapping scandal that erupted in 2015 and contributed to the demise of his government. The judge ruled that allowing the audio to be used as evidence was in the public interest.

Four other cases in which Gruevski faces criminal charges of corruption, election irregularities, ordering violence and abuse of office are pending. During his trial last week, Gruevski described the prosecutions as a sham and “political torture.”

Macedonia’s wiretapping scandal broke in 2015 when it emerged that phone conversations of about 20,000 people, including judges, police, politicians, journalists and foreign diplomats, had been illegally recorded. The political crisis triggered early elections the following year.

On Tuesday, a former senior interior ministry official, Gjoko Popovski, was convicted of abuse of office and sentenced to nine years over a procurement deal for police patrol cars. The court ruled that Popovski failed to select the cheapest offer in the purchase of 300 vehicles in 2008, overcharging state coffers by more than 450,000 euros ($530,000.)

Macedonian PM says Greece agrees to discuss proposed name

May 19, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said Saturday he is ready to go ahead with a new name for his country in order to solve a decades-long name dispute with Greece and pave the way for full integration of the small Balkan country into the European Union and NATO.

But Greek political leaders briefed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rejected the Macedonian proposal outright and the Greek government itself, in a response to Zaev’s remarks, was evasive about the particular name proposal.

Zaev said that “Republic of Ilindenska Macedonia” is the compromise name acceptable to both sides. The adjective “Ilindenska,” meaning, literally, “the day of the prophet Elijah” refers to a 1903 uprising against Turkish occupiers.

“With this possible solution, we preserve the dignity, we confirm and strengthen our Macedonian identity,” Zaev said, but added that final say on the new name will be put to a referendum. Zaev reiterated that Macedonia has no territorial claims to its southern neighbor and confirmed the inviolability of the borders. “Macedonia is ready to confirm this in all necessary ways,” Zaev said.

Macedonia was a part of the former Yugoslavia and declared independence in 1991. Greece claims the country’s name implies territorial designs on its northern province of Macedonia. He also said that with the new name proposal “we make a complete distinction with the Macedonia region in Greece”.

In Athens, premier Tsipras briefed Greece’s president and opposition leaders. All the opposition leaders said the name “Ilinden Macedonia” was unacceptable because, as Communist Party leader Dimitris Koutsoumbas said, it is “neither a geographical nor a temporal” designation, as agreed in nearly two decades of talks mediated by the United Nations. Some opposition leaders called the proposal a provocation on Macedonia’s part.

A statement released by the Greek government reflected its ambivalence about the name. “We welcome the acceptance by (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) that a solution to the nomenclature cannot exist without the adoption of … a name for all uses,” the statement said, meaning that Macedonians could not simply call their country “Macedonia” domestically, while having another name for international use.

“However, we encourage our neighbors to continue working together to find a commonly accepted name with a geographical or temporal designation, just as the package of proposals tabled by the UN Special Envoy, Matthew Nimetz, also provides,” the Greek statement added.

Zaev did not have an easy time with his country’s opposition leaders, either. The leader of the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party Hristijan Mickoski said after meeting with Zaev that his party is against the name change. He reiterated that his party will not support a change of the constitution and of Macedonia’s constitutional name “Republic of Macedonia”.

Zaev has urged Macedonians to support the proposed name.

Nellas reported from Athens, Greece

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