The fate of an agreement to change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was in the balance Sept. 30 as voters went to the polls in an advisory referendum that could also decide whether their leader and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras could fall.
The anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA leader Tsipras is seeking to end a 27-year dispute that began when a New Democracy government in 1991 allowed the country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia to use the name Macedonia, an abutting ancient Greek province, in what was supposed to be a temporary agreement.
But after successive FYROM governments began claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki, Greece used a veto to keep its neighbor out of NATO and opening European Union talk.
But that depends on whether the deal to change the name to North Macedonia is approved in the referendum and then in the Greek Parliament where Tsipras is facing opposition from his own coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL), whose leader, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, has threatened to yank his party if it comes to a vote.
The deal was brokered with the help of United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who failed for two decades to find a solution but resumed talks earlier this year a three-year break amid speculation the US wants to get what would be North Macedonia into NATO.
Opponents in FYROM called for a boycott of the referendum, including President, Gjorge Ivanov, who calls the deal a “flagrant violation of sovereignty.”
Voters were confronted with the question: “Are you in favor of membership in NATO and European Union by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”
It does not use the name North Macedonia and the deal also allows its citizens to be called Macedonians and have a Macedonian language and identity, anathema to Kammenos and critics and as Tsipras, seeing 62 percent of Greeks opposed, has barred giving citizens the vote.
The referendum is non-binding, allowing the government to take the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of the turnout. Under the country’s constitution, a binding referendum would need a minimum turnout of 50 percent.
Supporters of the deal, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev- who said he would quit if it fails – have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country’s future prosperity, the key to its ability to join NATO and, eventually, the EU.
It would be a major step for a country that less than two decades ago almost descended into civil war, when parts of its ethnic Albanian minority took up arms against the government, seeking greater rights.
Zaev cast his ballot in the southeastern town of Strumica and called on his fellow citizens to ensure a strong turnout.
“I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations,” Zaev said. “I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multiethnic nature of this country and the political unity of this country, no matter which party they are coming from.”
If the “Yes” vote wins, the next step is for the government to amend parts of the country’s constitution to ensure it doesn’t contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece. Only after those changes are approved by the FYROM Parliament does the deal face ratification in Greece.
VOTE YES, DON’T VOTE
Djose Tanevski was among the early voters in Skopje, the capital. “I came here because of the future of our children, who should have a decent life, a life in a lovely country, which will become a member of the European Union and NATO,” he said.
But others said they had no intention of voting
“I’m disappointed with all that is happening with Macedonia,” said 34-year-old Bojan Krstevski. “I cannot give up my Macedonian identity. I don’t want to be North Macedonian,” with the government and citizens calling their country Macedonia, as do 140 other countries.
The referendum has stirred strong interest in the West, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis among top foreign officials heading to FYROM’s capital of Skopje recently to urge its people to vote “Yes.”
There’s been growing concern over the reach of Russia, which is not keen on NATO expanding in a part of Europe once under its sphere of influence. Mattis said there was “no doubt” that Moscow had funded groups inside FYROM to campaign against the name change.
Even if Macedonians vote in favor of the deal, the agreement still faces several hurdles before it can be fully ratified.
The constitutional amendments that are required need a two-thirds majority of parliament’s 120 members to go through. So far Zaev has pledges of support from 73 lawmakers — seven short. A low turnout could complicate his task in persuading more lawmakers that the name change deal reflects the will of the people, only in FYROM.
Polls for some 1.8 million voters will open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Surveys show the yes vote was leading but while more than 80 percent of voters in FYROM support NATO and EU membership, many may boycott the referendum because of disagreement with the name change.
“The Macedonian people have never been so embarrassed than now with this agreement (with Greece),” Violeta Petkoska, a 39-year-old nurse told Reuters. “On the day of the referendum they want us to dig our own grave, so that from the next day the Macedonian people do not exist.”
Zaev saids NATO membership will bring much needed investment in the country with unemployment rate of more than 20 percent. “Macedonia should move forward to become a European state. We have no alternative,” Asim Shainovski, 35, a public administration worker told the news agency.