After violence, Greek parliament debates deal with Macedonia

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s parliament on Monday started debating a historic agreement aimed at normalizing relations with Macedonia, a day after violent demonstrations against the deal erupted in Athens.

The agreement would see Macedonia change its name to North Macedonia, while in exchange Greece would lift its objections to its northern neighbor joining NATO and, potentially, the European Union.

The deal was being debated Monday in the Greek parliament’s committee on defense and foreign policy, coming under strong criticism from opposition parties that say it concedes too much to Macedonia.

The house’s plenary session will take up the debate on Wednesday, before a vote tentatively set for late Thursday.

Left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government is struggling to secure the majority needed to back the deal and may need the support of as many as six opposition lawmakers.

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On Sunday, tens of thousands of people gathered outside Parliament to protest the deal, and at least 25 police officers were injured during extensive clashes.

More protests are expected this week, including plans by farmers’ associations to use tractors to block roads on the Greek-Bulgarian border on the final day of the parliamentary debate.

The deal is aimed at ending decades of hostility between the two Balkan countries. Greece wants its small landlocked neighbor to change or modify its name, arguing that it currently poses a potential threat to the territory and ancient heritage of Greece’s own region of Macedonia.

While the proposed compromise has been ratified by Macedonia, it remains deeply unpopular in Greece — with more than two-thirds of the public opposed to it, according to recent opinion polls.

The government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote last week after its right-wing coalition partner quit in protest at the proposed deal, leaving Tsipras’ reliant on opposition support.

On Monday, a potential ally, the centrist Potami, lost its party status in parliament, falling below the minimum representation requirement after a lawmaker declared himself an independent.

The government spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, blamed Sunday’s violence on “extreme right elements,” but added that opponents of the agreement should be respected.

“Many of the objections are reasonable, but the government has its policy … and a patriotic duty to secure the national interest,” Tzanakopoulos told private 24/7 Radio.

Strongly backed by the U.S. and Western European leaders, the Greek government argues that the deal would boost Balkan stability and improve regional trade.

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Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

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Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos

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