Macedonia’s prime minister said on Sunday he had a clear mandate to push for changing his country’s name in order to integrate the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia more closely with the west, despite a low turnout in a referendum. More than 90 per cent of those who voted, less than 40 per cent of the electorate, cast their ballots in favour.
“The citizens gave us a crystal clear message,” Zoran Zaev said to a packed hall full of supporters and media. “The referendum is decided by those who want to decide,” he said shrugging off the turnout.
Macedonia struck a provisional agreement with Greece in July to withdraw Athens’ veto on its neighbour’s progress towards membership of both organisations, on the condition that it changed its name to ‘Republic of North Macedonia’. As part of the deal to defuse the three decade-long dispute, Skopje agreed the name change to affirm that it did not imply a claim to Greek territory, while Athens officially recognised the Macedonian language and ethnicity.
About 37 per cent of the 1.8m eligible voters turned out, following calls for a boycott from the conservative opposition party and President Gjorge Ivanov, less than the 50 per cent the ruling social democrats had hoped for. The boycott camp claimed victory, with several hundred people celebrating in front of parliament. But Mr Zaev, too, said the results were conclusive.
“European Macedonia got more votes than any winner of any parliamentary elections in the history of independent Macedonia. Even if there was a turnout of 1.1 million voters, this result would have meant a clear decision for a European Macedonia,” said Mr Zaev.
He said that if the opposition MPs could not be convinced to approve constitutional changes, early elections could be held in late November and still leave enough time to implement the required changes on the government’s timeline.
Hristijan Mickoski, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE leader, said elections would bring Mr Zaev’s “political retirement”.
He said all those who boycotted sent an uncompromising message that: “This is Macedonia, Macedonians live here, our identity is Macedonian, our language is Macedonian, our ancestors were Macedonians, and such will be our future generations”.
VMRO-DPMNE, like many Macedonians, support entry into EU and NATO, but reject the proposed name without offering an alternative proposal.
“We want to be in the EU and Nato, but on our terms,” said Vladimir Kavadarkov, one of the leaders of a demonstration against the proposals that took place across from the parliament, in a park full of new neo-classical statues built by the previous VMRO-led government as a challenge to Greece’s claim on antiquity.
“We don’t want to come in with our heads bowed through a back door, we want to stand tall and come in through the front.”
While the referendum is consultative, rather than legally binding, a turnout above 50 per cent would have made it easier for the government to push the opposition to back the constitutional amendments necessary for the name change to go through.
Macedonia has been plagued by political crisis, corruption, and mass emigration since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. An estimated one quarter of its 2.1 million citizens live abroad, but only 3,000 Macedonians overseas were registered for the referendum.
Foreign leaders including German chancellor Angela Merkel and US defence secretary Jim Mattis have all visited the Balkan state in recent weeks, seeking to persuade voters to pave the way for Macedonia’s entry into both the EU and Nato.
Since coming to power in April last year after two years of political crisis, Mr Zaev’s government changed the name of the capital’s airport and its primary highway to Greece, both of which had been named for Alexander the Great after Athens blocked Macedonia’s Nato accession at 2008 summit in Bucharest.
If Mr Zaev manages to win support for the required two thirds majority, the deal could still fall apart before it is approved by the Greek parliament. Panos Kammenos, the Greek defense minister who leads the nationalist junior coalition partner, is opposed to the deal. He tweeted that, because of the turnout, the deal is “invalid.”
The Greek foreign ministry said objections to the agreement “proved to be untrue and erroneous” in a statement. It called for “sobriety from all sides without exception,” saying that Athens would continue to support the deal. “The need for equal co-operation in the region, the sovereignty of the culture of democratic dialogue, the culture of conciliation and fair compromises is increasing,” it said.
In Skopje, optimism was expressed that the deal could go forward. “Our government has to have courage to proceed with this,” even if the turnout is not high enough, added Dori Kimovala, a lawyer who voted Yes. “I am worried because most people are led by emotion on this issue.”