Yet on January 11th Mr Zaev at last scraped together the two-thirds majority needed for Macedonia’s parliament to endorse a constitutional change making “North Macedonia” the country’s official name, to go into effect once Greece has agreed too. The extra adjective is intended to assuage long-standing fears in Athens of a territorial claim on the Greek region of Macedonia south of the border. Mr Zaev hopes that talks will start this year to let Macedonia join the NATO alliance and, eventually, the European Union, since Greece is lifting a decade-long veto on both as part of the agreement.
Now, however, it is Mr Tsipras’s turn to deliver. His left-wing Syriza government plans to present the name deal to parliament this month. But the governing coalition collapsed at the weekend when Syriza’s partner, a right-wing splinter group called the Independent Greeks (ANEL), refused to back the government. Its leader, the defence minister Panos Kammenos, resigned after several days of skirmishing within the cabinet. The split left Syriza five votes short of a parliamentary majority.
Mr Tsipras, an adroit backstage tactician, immediately called for a vote of confidence in his “new” minority government. Four ANEL lawmakers switched sides, along with a defector from To Potami (the River), a small centre-left party, handing Syriza the slimmest of victories in the small hours of January 17th: 151 votes in the 300-member house. But an election must anyway be held by October. It is expected to be in May.
Mr Tsipras can now hope to pull off a similar coup over the Macedonia vote. Even though two of the four ANEL rebels are likely to vote against him, Syriza can count on support from two more To Potami deputies to ensure a second win, according to party officials. The other parties, though, from the centre-right New Democracy to the Greek communists, are all likely to vote against the deal, reflecting a deep-seated nationalism that still prevails among Greek voters. According to opinion polls, more than 60% oppose the agreement, even though Macedonia has yielded to Greek insistence on a change of name.
Mr Tsipras appears unrattled. His standing with his European peers, and especially with the German chancellor, is in noticeably better shape these days. A beaming Angela Merkel, making a 24-hour visit to Athens on January 11th, showered praise on Mr Tsipras, saying she was grateful for his efforts to promote “our shared values” in the Balkans.