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Macedonian lawmakers back North Macedonia name change

Macedonian parliamentarians have voted in favor of starting the process to change the country's name to North Macedonia. The name change would clear the path for the country's entry into NATO and possibly the EU. After a delay of more than 10 hours, lawmakers in Macedonia voted 80 to 39 on Friday in favor of the proposal to change the constitution, a key step in accepting the deal struck with neighbor Greece back in June. "The parliament adopted the proposal by the government to start the procedure for changes in the constitution," parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi said after the late-night vote. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democratic government had initially struggled to win the necessary support of conservative opposition members. The final vote, however, saw Zaev just achieve the necessary two-thirds majority needed inside the 120-seat house. Some conservative lawmakers accused the government of offering bribes of between €250,000 and €2 million (between $288,000 and $2.3 million) in exchange for votes. Zaev's party denied the allegation and said it would respond with legal action. Zaev had promised to call early elections if the government had lost the vote. Greece dispute close to resolved Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, had reached a deal in June calling for Macedonia to change its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Athens would in return stop blocking its neighbor from joining NATO and opening EU membership talks. Greece has argued that the name "Macedonia" implied territorial claims to a Greek province of the same name. The name change would end a 27-year dispute that began after Macedonia emerged from the disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991. Read more: Opinion: Macedonia's bitter lesson Following Friday's vote, Tsipras took to Twitter to congratulate Zaev. "Tonight's vote is a big step towards our common success. A very important step to a peaceful and prosperous future for our people!" the Greek prime minister said. Conservatives in Macedonia vehemently oppose the name change and boycotted a referendum last month on the issue. The referendum failed to reach a turnout hurdle of 50 percent, leaving the issue to parliamentarians to decide. The amendment process must now formally start within the next two weeks. The procedure could be lengthy, however, and requires several votes. Once Macedonia formally changes its constitution, Greece's lawmakers will also have to vote on the deal. It remains unclear whether that will come to pass, however, as several nationalist Greek lawmakers oppose allowing Macedonia to use the name in any form.

Macedonian parliamentarians have voted in favor of starting the process to change the country’s name to North Macedonia. The name change would clear the path for the country’s entry into NATO and possibly the EU. After a delay of more than 10 hours, lawmakers in Macedonia voted 80 to 39 on Friday in favor of the proposal to change the ... Read More »

German ministers call for joint EU policy to cope with refugee crisis

Two leading Social Democrat members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet have called for an EU-wide asylum policy as a way of coping with an unprecedented influx of refugees. Merkel made a similar call one week ago. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (pictured, above left) and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (above right) used an article published in this Sunday's edition of the newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung" to pitch the idea. In the article, in which their names appeared as the co-authors, the two ministers asserted that due to the crises "in our neighborhood," the growing number of refugee and migrant arrivals does not appear set to end anytime in the foreseeable future. "We Europeans owe it to ourselves and the world to do justice to the great challenge presented by these people seeking help," they wrote, before adding that the European Union's response as a whole had not been satisfactory. Plan for action They then went on to call for a joint EU asylum, refugee and migration policy, outlining a 10-point plan to implement it. Among the highlights of the 10-point plan is a call for a "fair distribution of refugees in Europe." While the two ministers pointed to what they wrote was an unprecedented readiness by many of their fellow citizens to accept refugees and help them become integrated into German society, they also warned that this could not last if the unprecedented influx was not fairly distributed. They also called for urgent assistance for EU countries that have been hardest hit by the wave of migration, such as Italy and Greece, which are where many of the refugees have been first entering the bloc. Recognizing the strain that municipalities, in Germany have also been under, as they struggle to cope with what is projected to by around 800,000 arrivals by the end of 2015, they also called for "long-term and systematic" financial support for their efforts. 'Safe countries of origin' Touching on an idea that has mainly been championed by members of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats in recent weeks, Steinmeier and Gabriel called for an EU list of "safe countries of origin." Germany has already designated a number of countries as such, and may add to its list, which includes countries that aspire to join the 28-member bloc. The two ministers noted a contradiction in the idea that countries in the Western Balkans could be deemed eligible to qualify for EU Association Agreements, while at the same time not being regarded as safe countries of origin for people seeking asylum in the bloc. Almost half of the people who have arrived in Germany so far this year seeking asylum status have come from the Western Balkans and stood almost no change of being granted asylum. The two ministers highlighted the need to send those who did not qualify for asylum back swiftly, in order to free up resources for refugees in need of protection. Finally, Steinmeier and Gabriel note that the only way to combat the problem in the long term was to look for ways of improving the situation in the countries that people are feeling forced to flee. "The stabilization of countries that are falling apart, the containment of violence and civil conflict, must go hand in hand with concentrated efforts towards economic development and the creation of real economic and social prospects in particular for young people in their countries of origin," the two cabinet ministers concluded. Their proposals come a week after Chancellor Merkel used a feature interview with public broadcaster ZDF to call for a common EU policy on migration. Italian warning Also on Sunday, Italy's foreign minister warned that EU member nations needed to find a way of better coordinating efforts to deal with the crisis, saying this could threaten the existence of the bloc's border-free Schengen zone. "What is at risk is one of the fundamental pillars of the European Union: the free circulation of people," Paolo Gentiloni told Sunday's edition of "Il Messagero." "Can we imagine a Union without Schengen? A return to the old borders? He asked. "Migrants are not arriving in Greece, Italy or Hungary. They're arriving in Europe. That is why the reception rules have to be 'Europeanized'."

Two leading Social Democrat members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet have called for an EU-wide asylum policy as a way of coping with an unprecedented influx of refugees. Merkel made a similar call one week ago. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (pictured, above left) and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (above right) used an article published in this Sunday’s edition of the ... Read More »

Macedonia arrests 9 suspected jihadists planning to fight in Syria and Iraq

Police in the former Yugoslavian republic raided houses, mosques and cafes seeking Islamist militants and recruiters. But officials say most of the targeted suspects already left the country and remain at large. Security officials say a security sweep Thursday in four towns in Macedonia sought suspected recruiters and militants planning on fighting in Syria and Iraq. Among the nine people arrested was Rexhep Memishi, an imam in the capital Skopje, whom the interior minister accused of encouraging Macedonian citizens of fighting in foreign armies. "According to our information he could be seen as the main ideological leader," Interior Minister Mitko Cavkov told reporters. He said that charges would be brought against a group of 36 who had violated Macedonian law by "fighting for another army or paramilitary organisation." Under Macedonian law, joining in conflicts abroad as well as recruiting citizens to fight in foreign wars is punishable by five years in jail. At least 16 Macedonian citizens have been killed in Iraq and Syria, while another 130 are believed to have taken part or are still fighting there, according to the ministry. Authorities are still seeking 27 more suspects, Chavkov said Thursday, though the minister said the suspects are thought to have crossed into Turkey, and there is no evidence of any violence planned in the Balkans. "We know that these people possess false passports and that they were going through Turkey to the front line," Chavkov said, noting that the investigation had not determined what organizations the suspects are tied to. Tensions continue to exist between Macedonia's Slavs and ethnic Albanians who make up one-third of the country's 2.1 million people. Most ethnic Albanians are Muslim, but practice a moderate form of Islam. Even so, around a dozen Albanians have reportedly been killed in Syria after swearing allegiance to Islamic State; Thursday's raids were carried out in mostly Albanian communities.

Police in the former Yugoslavian republic raided houses, mosques and cafes seeking Islamist militants and recruiters. But officials say most of the targeted suspects already left the country and remain at large. Security officials say a security sweep Thursday in four towns in Macedonia sought suspected recruiters and militants planning on fighting in Syria and Iraq. Among the nine people ... Read More »

Macedonia’s defiant prime minister rallies supporters

A day after a massive anti-government rally in the Macedonian capital, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has told his supporters that he has no plans of stepping down. Boris Georgievski reports from Skopje. In front of thousands of flag-waving supporters, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski vowed on Monday that he would not step down. "No retreat! No surrender! Macedonia is strong and Macedonia will win. We will win!" said Gruevski, as the massive crowd chanted his name. The pro-government rally came as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, for a second day in a row, further fueling the already heated political standoff between the government and the opposition. On Sunday, the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and various civic movements mobilized more than 50,000 people to demand the resignation of the conservative prime minister and his government. Defiant, strong-willed Gruevski is under huge pressure from the opposition and the international community after opposition leader Zoran Zaev released information claiming to link Gruevski and his government to widespread corruption, interference in the judiciary and the media and illegal wiretapping of 20,000 people, including police, judges, journalists and foreign diplomats. But during Monday's rally, Gruevski appeared defiant and strong-willed as he repeatedly accused Zaev himself of corruption and of being supported by "foreign intelligence services." His words were echoed by his supporters. "We must not give up. We support the government and the prime minister in defense of the country from the foreign enemy," one supporter, who did not want to be named, told DW. The repeated mention of the "foreign enemy" and of "foreign intelligence services" has become a common theme in Gruevski's speeches after the wiretapping scandal went public earlier this month. Some believe that the prime minister's word choice only shows his growing desperation after nine years in power. "Gruevski is entering a tunnel, and he knows there is only one exit," said political analyst Petar Arsovski in an interview with DW. "He does not want to be excluded from the game, and with this protest he wants to show the world that he is still powerful and that he has to be part of the solution." The European Parliament has invited both Gruevski and Zaev to Strasbourg, France on Tuesday for talks in an attempt to resolve the crisis. But there is no real sense of optimism that the talks might lead to a solution, an anonymous parliamentary source told DW. Two rounds of talks mediated by the US and EU ambassadors in Skopje have already failed to break the political impasse. 'Gruevski must leave' After Sunday's opposition rally, dozens of anti-government protesters set up tents in front of Gruevski's office, saying they planned to stay until he steps down. Sitting in front of his tent, some 800 meters (about half a mile) away from the stage where Gruevski was speaking, Zamir Mehmeti could hear the roar of the prime minister's supporters. "We have gathered here with one goal: Gruevski must leave," he said. Mehmeti, an ethnic Albanian, joined the opposition protest - even though the Albanian political parties had called on their supporters to stay home. On May 9, a group of armed ethnic Albanians clashed with Macedonian police in a northern border town, leaving 18 dead - 10 gunmen and eight police officers. Mehmeti's sister, Ermira, is a parliamentarian and a member of the Albanian Democratic Union for Integrations party, or DUI, a junior governing coalition partner of Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE. "On Sunday, we brought down the myth that the different ethnic communities in this country can't live together," he said, suggesting the multi-ethnic character of the opposition protest. "What Gruevski's doing over there is trying to bring this myth back to life."

A day after a massive anti-government rally in the Macedonian capital, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has told his supporters that he has no plans of stepping down. Boris Georgievski reports from Skopje. In front of thousands of flag-waving supporters, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski vowed on Monday that he would not step down. “No retreat! No surrender! Macedonia is strong and ... Read More »

Macedonia police ‘killed in shootout’

Five police officers have been killed and more than 30 wounded in an operation against gunmen in northern Macedonia, according to the government. Shots were fired during the day in the town of Kumanovo. Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said on Saturday that five police officers had been killed in fighting in the north of the country. Her statement came after exchanges of gunfire throughout the day in the town of Kumanovo, where there is a large ethnically Albanian population. Jankulovska told a news conference that some of the gunmen had been killed, but she did not say how many. The minister also said police had no information about possible civilian casualties in the day-long gun battle. Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski had said earlier that police had come up against a "well-trained terrorist group." Past scene of trouble The ethnically-mixed town is located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the capital, Skopje, not far from the border with Kosovo. The region was a particular hotspot when ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of Macedonia's population of some two million, took up arms in 2001. The conflict then lasted six months and ended with a peace deal that guaranteed extra rights to dissatisfied ethnic Albanians. The country is currently gripped by a political crisis, with both the government and the opposition accusing each other of plotting to destabilize the country for their own ends. The government is being accused of seeking to protect its position while the opposition is alleged to be seeking to seize power.

Five police officers have been killed and more than 30 wounded in an operation against gunmen in northern Macedonia, according to the government. Shots were fired during the day in the town of Kumanovo. Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said on Saturday that five police officers had been killed in fighting in the north of the country. Her statement came ... Read More »

Macedonia indicts opposition leader Zoran Zaev over wiretapping scandal

Opposition leader Zaev and four others were officially charged over a wiretapping scandal, which threatens the ruling party's reign. But with leaks linking the prime minister to widespread corruption, who's to believe? Macedonia's state prosecutor on Thursday evening officially charged Zoran Zaev (pictured above), the leader of Macedonia's center-left Social Democrat party, with espionage, illegal wiretapping, and "violence against representatives of the highest state bodies." But four others, including a former intelligence chief and his wife, were accused of espionage and illegal wiretapping of government officials. Zaev and his party immediately dismissed the accusations in a statement. "We have published evidence and arguments that the whole system in Macedonia is under the control of the government," the statement said. Leaks or fabrications? The indictment comes on the heels of published recordings implicating Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Grueyski in illegally wiretapping 20,000 people, including politicians, journalists, and community leaders. The recorded materials detail widespread corruption and abuse of power by Grueyski's governing VMRO-DPMNE party. However, Grueyski denies the allegations, accusing foreign spies of fabricating the recordings. But the opposition leader denies this, saying he accessed the material thanks to "patriots" in Macedonia's intelligence services. Grueyski has also accused Zaev of plotting a coup against his rule. EU concerned The EU has expressed concerns over the wiretapping scandal and suggested an independent investigation into the matter. The opposition leader faces a minimum of four years in prison if found guilty. A senior judicial body is set to determine whether the five will stand trial. Macedonia is trying to join the EU after gaining candidate status in 2005, though membership talks have yet to begin.

Opposition leader Zaev and four others were officially charged over a wiretapping scandal, which threatens the ruling party’s reign. But with leaks linking the prime minister to widespread corruption, who’s to believe? Macedonia’s state prosecutor on Thursday evening officially charged Zoran Zaev (pictured above), the leader of Macedonia’s center-left Social Democrat party, with espionage, illegal wiretapping, and “violence against representatives ... Read More »

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