Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday prepared for a confidence vote on his government this week after his nationalist ally resigned in a row over a name-change deal with neighbouring Macedonia.
Tsipras called for the vote in parliament following the resignation Sunday of defence minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the small nationalist ANEL party, after four years in coalition government.
Kammenos’ departure raises the possibility of snap elections, though government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Monday the administration could still see its four-year term through to October.
“I believe the government will win the vote and will be able to…complete its (term),” Tzanakopoulos told Alpha TV, admitting that Tsipras’ move was “high-risk”.
Parliament speaker Nikos Voutsis said the debate over the confidence motion would start on Tuesday, with a vote likely on Wednesday night.
Also Monday, Tsipras appointed armed forces chief of staff Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis as defence minister.
“The current situation requires compromise and unity,” Apostolakis told journalists before a meeting with Tsipras.
As well as the confidence vote on the government, parliament will also vote on whether to support the Macedonia deal, but no date has been set for that ballot.
– Greek resistence –
Tsipras’ leftist Syriza party has 145 deputies in the 300-member Greek Parliament, but could win the confidence vote with just 120 votes if enough lawmakers abstain.
The Macedonia deal requires at least 151 votes, and enough independent deputies have pledged their support to secure its approval.
Kammenos’ ANEL party is fiercely opposed to the deal with Macedonia to end a 27-year dispute over the country’s name.
Earlier Monday he kicked out two MPs from his party who had voiced support for Tsipras, reducing his parliamentary group to five.
Macedonian lawmakers voted on Friday to rename their country the Republic of North Macedonia, but the agreement will only come into effect with the backing of the Greek parliament.
The proposal faces resistance in Greece, which has a northern province of the same name just across the border, because of what critics see as the implied claims to Greek land and cultural heritage.
For most Greeks, Macedonia is the name of their history-rich northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.
But the European Union and NATO have hailed the deal, which would lift Greek objections to Macedonia joining both organisations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a visit to Greece Thursday, expressed her gratitude to Tsipras for brokering the deal despite strong opposition.
The agreement “will benefit North Macedonia, Greece and the European Union”, she said according to the official translation.
On Monday, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters in Brussels that the bloc backed the deal, saying it had taken “political courage” to resolve one of the region’s oldest conflicts.
“We see it as the unique opportunity to overcome the difficulties of the past, to enhance reconciliation for the region and for Europe as a whole,” she said.
Among the agreement’s most vocal critics has been Russia, which on Monday called it “a continuation of a process to artificially impose the name of the state from the outside, with the aim of forcing Skopje into NATO”.
Athens described Russia’s statement as “troubling” and said it amounted to “interference in Greek affairs”.
Although Moscow and Athens have been historically close, in July Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two more from entry, for alleged involvement in protests against the name agreement.
Russia in turn threw out two Greek diplomats and a planned visit to Greece by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in July was called off, though Tsipras visited Moscow in December.