Greece and Macedonia on Sunday signed a historic preliminary agreement to rename the small Balkan nation the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a row that has poisoned relations between the two neighbours since 1991.
“This is a brave, historic and necessary step for our peoples,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. “We are here to heal the wounds of time, to open a path for peace, fraternisation and growth for our countries, the Balkans and Europe,” he said.
“Our two countries should step out of the past and look to the future,” said Macedonia PM Zoran Zaev. By signing the agreement… we have really moved mountains.”
But as the two countries’ foreign ministers signed the deal Greek protesters clashed with riot police, who beat them back with tear gas near the small village of Pisoderi, 25km away from the ceremony.
A woman was hit on the head by a rock and a man was being treated for breathing trouble, health officials said, as around 500 demonstrators waving Greek flags tried to approach the signature ceremony.
The accord aims to start unravelling one of the world’s longest diplomatic disputes, which began 27 years ago with Macedonia’s declaration of independence but whose roots date back centuries.
“The time has come again to sing happy songs in the Balkans,” Tsipras said, moments before the document was signed by the foreign ministers.
Zaev and several of his ministers arrived by speedboat at the picturesque fishing village of Psarades under a sunny sky, on the southern bank of Lake Prespa, one of the natural boundaries between the two countries.
Tsipras and Zaev embraced on the village dock and were treated to a standing ovation by gathered dignitaries.
UN under-secretary-general for political affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, longterm UN negotiator Matthew Nimetz, EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn were on hand, snapping pictures with their smartphones.
Nimetz, who turned 79 on Sunday, and was given a birthday cake, has been trying to broker a solution since 1994, first as a US envoy and subsequently on behalf of the United Nations.
But it was the election of Zaev in 2017, replacing nationalist prime minister Nikola Gruevski, that proved crucial.
After the signature, Tsipras crossed over to the Macedonian side of Lake Prespa for lunch, becoming the first Greek PM to visit the neighbouring state. -AFP