ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Macedonia’s president said Wednesday he would not sign off on a historic deal that would change the country’s name, the most potentially disruptive reaction so far to the agreement with Greece that has received diverging reactions in both countries.
President Gjorge Ivanov said the agreement, which would rename Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia, gave too many concessions to Greece.
“Such a harmful agreement, which is unique in the history of mankind, is shameful and unacceptable for me,” Ivanov said in a TV address. “It violates the Constitution (and) the laws … I will not legalize political illegal agreements.”
The deal reached by the prime ministers of the two countries is expected to be signed by their foreign ministers this weekend. After that, Macedonia’s parliament would vote on it, and if it is approved, Ivanov’s signature would be needed.
If the president refuses to sign, the deal would return to parliament for another vote. Ivanov would have to sign off on the agreement if it is passed a second time.
The name dispute, which has prevented Macedonia from joining international institutions such as NATO, has roused strong nationalist sentiments and poisoned the two countries’ relations since the Balkan country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Greece argues that the term “Macedonia” implies a claim on the territory and ancient heritage of its own northern province of the same name — the birthplace of ancient warrior king Alexander the Great.
European Council President Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement Wednesday welcoming the deal, but added a note of warning.
“We hope that this unique opportunity to relaunch the wider Western Balkan region’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration will not be wasted,” the statement said. “This agreement sets an example for others on how to consolidate peace and stability across the region.”
The two prime ministers’ efforts to forge an agreement face strong dissent, with opponents staging large protests on both sides of the border. The issue threatened to split Greece’s governing coalition, and provoked a rift between Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Ivanov.
“Everything that is sacred to Macedonia is being trampled underfoot, and the unborn are deprived of the right and pride to be Macedonians,” Ivanov said in his address.
Calls were circulating on Macedonian social media for a renewed street protest late Wednesday, while Greek opponents of the deal are planning a rally in Athens on Friday. Hardliners on both sides are arguing that their prime ministers conceded too much to reach the deal. In Macedonia, Zaev has said he will put the deal to a referendum in the fall.
Zaev, accompanied by Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, visited Ivanov Wednesday to brief him on the deal. But Ivanov refused to discuss the issue.
“President Ivanov … left the meeting, refusing to talk about the achievements of this historical agreement,” the government said in a statement.
“I think Prime Minister Zaev’s most difficult task will be to actually explain the deal, to build political consensus for the implementation and, of course, the upcoming referendum,” said political analyst Petar Arsovski.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also faces opposition at home.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose right-wing Independent Greeks party is the coalition partner in Tsipras’ government, said he would oppose an agreement in a parliamentary vote. This would leave the left-wing prime minister dependent on support from political opponents to ratify the deal in parliament.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the head of New Democracy, Greece’s main opposition party, described the agreement as “deeply problematic” and called on Greece’s president to intervene so the deal can be debated in parliament before it is signed, instead of after.