NATO chief hails ‘historic opportunity’ of Macedonia name change vote

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference in Brussels. (AFP pic)

BRUSSELS: NATO head Jens Stoltenberg hailed the overwhelming support for Macedonia to rename its country in Sunday’s referendum, seeing it as a historic chance to end a decades-long spat with Greece.

“I urge all political leaders and parties to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity,” Stoltenberg said on his twitter account.

“NATO’s door is open,” he added, with the name change seen as a major step to clearing the way for Macedonia’s membership to the western military alliance.

Stoltenberg insisted however that NATO accession could only be engaged once all “national procedures” had been completed, which includes the name change winning a two-thirds majority vote in the Macedonian parliament.

Sunday’s referendum however was marred by a low turnout, with only a third of the electorate voting.

NATO in July invited Macedonia to start talks to join the alliance after Skopje reached the deal with Greece.

Stoltenberg had said at the time Macedonia would be able to become NATO’s newest member, provided the new name was approved at the referendum.

Countries hoping to join NATO must win unanimous approval from existing members and Greece blocked Macedonia’s bid 10 years ago because of the name row.

Athens insisted Macedonia should change its name because it has its own northern province of the same name, which in ancient times was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire – a source of intense pride for modern-day Greeks.