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A name change that changes Europe

Greece agrees that its neighbor can use the name Macedonia, ending a long dispute and adding to the peace growing in the Balkans.

AP
An opponent of Greece's approval of the name Republic of Northern Macedonia holds a flag with the Star of Vergina, the emblem of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia and Alexander the Great during a Jan. 24 protest in Evzones at the Greek-Macedonian border.

In southeast Europe, a region that triggered major wars in the 20th century, every step that douses fiery nationalism is welcome. On Friday, the Greek Parliament approved a measure to end a 27-year dispute with its northern neighbor over the official name for that country. After the vote, the neighbor commonly known as Macedonia will be called the Republic of North Macedonia. And the northern region of Greece also called Macedonia will retain its ancient name.

If the dispute seems arcane to outsiders, that is not the case for ardent nationalists in each country. Both peoples lay claim to the legacy of Alexander the Great, who came from the border area. Fears of losing their respective cultural identity and of a possible territorial invasion run deep.

In agreeing on a mutually acceptable name, each decided to put a higher ideal ahead of stubborn pride. That ideal is a more prosperous and integrated Europe. The Republic of North Macedonia, which voted last year for its new name, is expected to join NATO soon and eventually the European Union. For years, Greece, which is already a part of both blocs, vetoed membership for its neighbor, adding to tensions in the Balkans.

“Today we write a new page for the Balkans,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras posted on social media. “The hatred of nationalism, dispute and conflict will be replaced by friendship, peace and co-operation.”

In 1991, the Balkans exploded in conflict after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the former Yugoslavia. Only with NATO’s intervention and the lure of EU membership has the region begun to end wars, settle borders, and agree on names. Montenegro is now a NATO member. Bosnia recently held a peaceful election. And talks between Kosovo and Serbia appear hopeful.

The agreement between the two countries is also a rebuff to Russia. President Vladimir Putin has meddled in the dispute to prevent the expansion of the EU and NATO into a region he regards as part of historic Russian influence. In fact, the real influence in the Balkans is the desire of its people to live in democratic societies, tied together by the values of the EU.

If all goes as planned, Mr. Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, could win the Nobel Peace Prize. Each had a long political struggle to redefine the identity of their nations. Such efforts are what help keep Europe at peace after decades of war. The bonds of affection are becoming greater on the Continent rather than the divisions of nationalism.

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