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Macedonian lawmakers debate putting new name in constitution

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s parliament started Monday to debate constitutional amendments that are part of an agreement with neighboring Greece to rename the country “North Macedonia,” changes that would go a long way to ensuring the country can join NATO.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s left-led coalition is struggling to get two-thirds of parliament’s 120 lawmakers to launch the amendment process, which would take weeks to complete.

Addressing lawmakers, Zaev said the agreement was too good an opportunity for Macedonia to miss, as it would lead to Greece lifting its objections to the country joining NATO and starting accession talks with the European Union.

“A better deal could not be reached,” he said. “The choice is between the future and isolation. The choice is whether we will bring Macedonia into NATO and the European Union.”

Zaev has staked his political future on pushing through the agreement, which would end a 27-year dispute with Greece. He has said he will call early elections if the amendments are rejected.

His government can’t change the constitution without support from opposition parties, which are against the amendments. Apart from the name change, these involve modifying the preamble to the constitution and two articles.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party says Macedonians failed to endorse the name change in a referendum last month that was ruled invalid because of a low turnout. Those who did vote overwhelmingly backed the change, though.

VMRO-DPMNE lawmaker Ilija Dimovski insisted Monday that the deal with Greece is dead.

“No lawmaker had promised voters that Macedonia’s constitutional name would be changed,” he said. “We have no voter’s approval to enter this procedure.”

If the constitutional changes are adopted, the deal still requires ratification by Greece’s parliament. This could topple the coalition government in Athens, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ junior partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, strongly opposes the deal saying it concedes too much to Macedonia.

Greece says Macedonia’s current name implies claims on its own adjoining territory, and on ancient Greek heritage.

Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos insisted Monday that his lawmakers would not vote for the agreement, and would leave Tsipras’ coalition if the deal comes to parliament.

Without the Independent Greeks, Tsipras would lack a parliamentary majority.

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