By Prarthana Mitra
A third of Macedonia turned out to participate in a referendum over the plan to rename the country that could potentially end a 27-year-old spat with Greece and pave the way for a NATO and EU membership. The motion acquired public mandate, as 91.2% of voters favoured the name change to North Macedonia.
Here’s what happened
The motion also found resistance among those who boycotted the vote, leading to a low turnout and placing the onus on Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to convince the rightwing opposition to honour the agreement with Greece.
In June, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had promised not to veto Macedonia’s application to join the EU and NATO, provided it changed its name. The Foreign Ministry of Greece informed the media that it “remains committed” to “complete the implementation of this agreement”. An official source told AFP that Tsipras has lent his support to Zaev whose “determination and courage” he had extolled over a telephonic conversation. Zaev had earlier voiced confidence that the country would support a yes vote.
“I think the huge majority of the citizens who voted have chosen the European path for Macedonia,” the social-democrat leader told local media after the polls closed. The low turnout and high abstinence from voting naturally question the credibility of the referendum, although the demonstration organised by opponents of the change to boycott the poll did not gather enough steam.
Here’s what could happen next
Although the ‘yes’ majority gives parliament a political mandate to change the constitution, in the absence of a numerical majority, Zaev needs the opposition’s help to pass it the deal in the parliament. After the results, he urged the opposition to “respect the democratic will of the citizens.” However, in June, Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist opposition, had openly championed the campaign to boycott the referendum.
Zaev’s coalition government, which figures representatives of the ethnic Albanian minority, needs at least a dozen MPs from the opposition to back the move.
The current turmoil can be traced as far back as Alexander the Great’s empire and which of the two countries deserved to stake a claim over his territories spanning both nations. In modern history, Macedonia has struggled for recognition of its name as soon as the former Yugoslav republic declared independence. In 1991, Athens objected to the appeal, accusing Macedonia of stealing the name of its own northern province, also known as Macedonia.
Why it matters
Zaev called this an opportunity to get past the 27-year-old stalemate. Few Macedonians, however, shared his enthusiasm, as most of them feel they have been bullied by Greece. “I am not happy and I do not know anyone who likes this deal,” said 55-year old Danica Taneska, who admitted voting ‘no’ to the change.
However, Macedonia is one of the poorest European nations, which explains why some citizens voted yes. If membership to the EU and NATO can be worked out, the condition to prefix the name would serve as a stepping stone towards economic development.
Europe and the US have also campaigned hard for the deal, with global leaders visiting Skopje last month, urging Macedonians to seize the “historic” opportunity. NATO has already issued an invite, which will be finalised after the deal passes, while EU accession talks are scheduled to begin next year.
Moreover, this agenda is binding ethnic minorities and Albanians based in Macedonia, as both are broadly pro-West. It will bear fruit for the western front as well, which is eager to have another strong base in the West Balkans where Russia enjoys natural dominance.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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