It was a hot summer in Macedonia after the historical agreement on the name of the Country reached with Greece and ratified on the banks of the Prespa Lake District. Protests went on throughout the summer. The relations between Athens and Skopje have been tense since 1991, owing to longstanding objections to adopting the name “Macedonia”, which Greece claims the exclusive right for its region with capital Thessaloniki. But 27 years later we are (maybe) witnessing a historic turning point that will finally open up the path towards the EU and NATO for FYROM – the former Republic of Yugoslavia –, blocked until now. Next Sunday, September 30 Macedonia is called to vote to change the Country’s name to North Macedonia. It’s an unprecedented vote for Skopje and at global level, since very few nations have “adopted” the name of the State with a popular vote.
Unique opportunity. For the supporters of the “Yes-vote” the deal with Greece is a unique opportunity to come out of isolation and establish normal relations with neighbouring Countries.
The referendum is an initiative of Social Democratic premier Zoran Zaev who bravely tried to reach an agreement with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, equally threatened by protests across the border.
Zaev is supported by the government coalition formed by Social-Democrats and by two parties of the Albanian minority group. Opposition party VMRO-DPMNE (nationalists, in the government coalition until 2017) have not taken an open stand, although they are inclined towards abstention, while President Gjorge Ivanov opposes the accord.
Growing interest. “According to the latest surveys, voters turnout is bound to increase, opting for a Yes-vote”, Macedonian political analyst Miroslav Risinski told SIR. The population will be asked: “Are you in favour of Nato and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the republic of Macedonia and Greece?.” “The mention of the deal is important, for it refers not only to the name-dispute. In fact it also envisages consequential constitutional amendments, including renouncing the nationalistic interpretation of Macedonian modern history that linked Skopje to Alexander the Great”, the expert pointed out.
Ad hoc question. According to Kosta Filipov, journalist and long-time correspondent of the National Bulgarian Television in Macedonia, “the text of the referendum was purposely designed so that the first part, in favour of NATO and the EU, on which a large majority agrees, may draw a yes-vote to the second, which refers to the agreement with Greece that many Macedonians oppose.”
Quorum-enigma. Over 50 percent of the 2 million registered voters, 900 thousand people, must cast their ballot for the referendum to be valid. In fact, the big question is whether the quorum will be reached. For Risinski, the vote is “consultative and not mandatory”, thus “the referendum’s failure does not imply the annulment of the deal with Greece.” The referendum – he explained – has a political bearing, as it voices the opinion of Macedonian citizens. Moreover
“the big problem to be solved will be the constitutional changes envisaged by the deal, that require a two-thirds majority of MPs, while the government coalition can count on 65 MPs on a total of 120.”
Need for a compromise solution. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced that he will resign in case of failure. “Another option is that the impossibility to amend the Constitution might lead to early elections that will reconfirm a majority-win of the Social-Democrats”, Risinski claimed. “Macedonian citizens have understood that this compromise solution is critical to EU adhesion”, he pointed out. “Indeed – he went on – if in the past decades the focus had not been on nationalism, recognizing instead the fact that Macedonian, Bulgarians and Greeks had all lived on these lands, the situation today would be much simpler. But I hope that in the meantime society has matured.” It is no coincidence that high representatives of the EU, USA, Germany and Austria arrived in Skopje to invite Macedonians to make the historical step requested in the Referendum. “It’s the final step, but we, the Macedonian people, need to make it alone”, pointed out the Macedonian political expert.
Pressure and fake news. In the election campaign local news focused on Russia’s alleged influence on the supporters of the “no-vote”: one of the main pro-boycott opposition parties is United Macedonia, which echoes United Russia.
There were also various distortions on news outlets and social media, including fake news, recorded abroad, for disinformation purposes.
“When the Country is faced with a historical decision on which depends the future of many generations of people to avert the resurgence of fruitless nationalistic discourse, political and ideological controversies should be out of the picture”, Filipov said. The Macedonian people are called to give evidence of this next Sunday, although nobody believes that the referendum will put an end to the tensions.