Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leaves Maximos mansion following a meeting with Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, in Athens, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. Greek defense Minister Kammenos, leader of the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party, is vehemently opposed to a deal with neighboring Macedonia over its state name. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Greek defense minister resigns over Macedonia name change

January 13, 2019 - 8:40 am

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's conservative defense minister, who leads the junior partner in the country's coalition government, resigned Sunday over the Macedonia name deal, which he opposes.

Panos Kammenos announced his resignation after meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Sunday morning. He said his party is quitting the government.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, in response, that he will ask for a vote of confidence in Parliament in the coming week. He added he had a "frank discussion" with Kammenos, whom he thanked for his government partnership.

Tsipras also announced that Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will replace Kammenos as defense minister.

Greece and Macedonia agreed last June to a deal that would change the name of Greece's northern neighbor to North Macedonia. In exchange, Greece would lift its objections to the country joining NATO. The deal ended a dispute that had been going on since the early 1990s.

Macedonia's parliament ratified the deal on Friday and the Greek parliament now needs a majority for its ratification, but Greek conservatives believe that Tsipras gave too many concessions in agreeing to the deal.

Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party has 145 deputies in the 300-member Greek Parliament. With the departure of his coalition partner, Tsipras would need opposition help to pass the Macedonia name deal.

In a press conference that followed his resignation, Kammenos made it clear that he and his party, the right-wing populist Independent Greeks, will vote against the government confidence motion, as well as the Macedonia name deal, when it comes up for ratification, and the protocol approving Macedonia's NATO membership.

Kammenos claimed that ratifying the Macedonia name deal by a simple majority vote is unconstitutional.

He admitted, however that he is only assured of three votes, his own and that of two other lawmakers, one of whom, Maria Kollia-Tsaroucha, the deputy defense minister, will resign along with Kammenos.

Two other lawmakers, one an ally who is not a party member, have long declared they will vote for the Macedonia name deal.

Kammenos harshly criticized the remaining two allied lawmakers, Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura and Deputy Agriculture Minister Vassilis Kokkalis, who are both on trips abroad. Neither one has stated their position on the confidence motion but Kokkalis has said he will vote against the name change deal. Kammenos implied that both would do anything to keep their jobs.

In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told a press conference Sunday that he has been "assured" by a Greek government official that Athens remains "strongly committed" to completing its part of the name change deal,

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Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje.