The foreign ministers of the two countries signed an accord to rename the former Yugoslav republic the “Republic of North Macedonia”, despite angry protests on both sides of the border over a deal seen as a national sellout by some on both sides.
In the idyllic setting of Prespes, a lake region that borders Greece, Macedonia and Albania, leaders from the two countries embraced and shook hands in the presence of European and UN officials.
The agreement still requires the approval of both parliaments and a referendum in Macedonia. That approval is far from assured, as it faces stiff opposition from the Greek public, and Macedonia’s president has vowed to block the deal.
“Very few believed we would be able to leave behind 26 years of unfruitful dispute,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
“We have a historic responsibility that this deal is not held in abeyance,” Tsipras said as he and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev received a standing ovation.
In the Macedonian capital Skopje, police fired stun grenades and tear gas on Sunday night to disperse a protest rally by hundreds of nationalists.
Protesters pelted police with stones, chanting, “Macedonia, Macedonia we will give our lives for Macedonia.” Some were arrested.
Across the border, up to 70% of Greeks object to the name compromise, an opinion poll by the Proto Thema newspaper showed. In Psarades, the tiny lakeside community where the deal was signed, the church bell tolled in mourning, draped in a Greek flag.
Some 30km away in the Greek village of Pisoderi, about 3000 people rallied against the deal and at least six were injured in clashes with police who fired tear gas to disperse an angry crowd on a hillside.
“We don’t accept anything, we don’t recognise anything. For us none of it is valid,” said Costas Venetikidis, a protester. “Macedonia is in our soul; that’s why we’re here.”
Not far from the Greek border in the Macedonian city of Bitola, thousands protested draped in national flags, chanting “This is Macedonia”.
“This shameful deal will not pass. We will defend Macedonia’s name and pride,” said Petre Filipovski, 40.
Following the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece’s northern neighbour took the name Macedonia. Athens refused to accept it, saying it implied territorial claims over the Greek province of Macedonia and an appropriation of ancient Greek culture and civilisation.
Zaev said the two neighbours had “moved mountains” by reaching the accord. It was “a dignified solution acceptable to both sides”, he said.
Veteran UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, who has overseen talks for 25 years, described the agreement as a fair and honourable deal. It was, he said, an example of “how neighbours can solve a problem if they really work at it”.
“Today is my birthday,” said Nimetz, 79. “I told my family this year I don’t need any gifts because two prime ministers are going to give me a big gift.”
Athens had blocked Macedonia’s hopes of joining the EU and Nato, objections it must now lift under the deal. Others might still object.
“One big concern is Russia. Moscow has noticeably refused to endorse the agreement,” said James Ker-Lindsay, senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “It knows that this will see Macedonia join Nato,” he said.