ATHENS – Greek anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras called to congratulate Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) Premier Zoran Zaev after a referendum gave overwhelming support for a name change to North Macedonia, but as nearly 62 percent of voters stayed away in a boycott.
Tsipras applauded Zaev for “his decisiveness and bravery in continuing with the implementation of the deal,” unidentified sources told Kathimerini.
Tsipras’ office still hadn’t put out an official response to the agreement the Greek Foreign Ministry said was “contradictory” and which analysts said could make it tricky for the governments to forge ahead in the face of strong and often vehement opposition Zaev and Tsipras face.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, head of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL), which oppose the agreement, said the low turnout was a defeat for the deal the government he serves had forged.
With 62 percent of Greeks opposed, Tsipras – who called an anti-austerity referendum in the summer of 2015 and then reneged when voters backed his call to stand against the country’s lenders – has prohibited the question going to the Greek electorate.
If Zaev can now convince lawmaker in FYROM to change the country’s constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greek lands, including the real Macedonia, an abutting ancient Greek province whose name is being given away, the question will go to the Greek Parliament as Kammenos said he would yank his party from the government if it does.
SYRIZA said the referendum was a “consultative” process and not part of the deal although the government earlier said it was and that Greece “remains committed to Prespa agreement,” using the name of a lake which borders both countries, where it was signed.
“A major portion of society in the neighboring country backed the agreement. However, a significant portion viewed it with skepticism. Greece respects the decisions of the citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” the ministry said.
With opponents in FYROM calling for a boycott and reports Russia – which wants to keep what would be North Macedonia out of NATO – accused of meddling, the Foreign Ministry added that, “… a climate of nationalism and suspicion, daily fake news and unbridled fanaticism do not allow, unfortunately, for a sober assessment of the major benefits of this agreement, and impede the necessary mutual understanding of peoples, and the development of the cooperation.”
“Extreme and aggressive forms of nationalism in our region, irresponsible behaviors on what concerns the region’s future and, getting caught up in irredentist stereotypes – when history should be a school and not a prison – do not provide positive prospects for the region in general,” it added.
“The need for equitable cooperation is more and more felt in the region, as is the need for a culture of democratic dialogue to prevail, as well as for a culture of understanding and just compromises,” it concluded.
IT DOESN’T COUNT
Kammenos said the low turnout of only 36.8 percent made the referendum “invalid,” but didn’t say if he would stick to his word to yank ANEL if it comes to a vote in the Greek Parliament as he has repeatedly waffled on what he would do as leaving the government would take him out of power with surveys showing that with only around 1 percent backing his party wouldn’t be returned in the next elections.
The European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, who supported the deal that would see Greece lift its veto on its neighbor getting into NATO and opening European Union accession talks, downplayed the low turnout and tweete that it was a “very significant ‘yes’ vote” that counted.
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.
The US State Department welcomed “the results of the Republic of Macedonia’s September 30 referendum, in which citizens expressed their support for NATO and European Union (EU) membership by accepting the Prespa Agreement between Macedonia and Greece,” spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a press statement, calling FYROM by the name Macedonia, as 140 countries do.
“The United States strongly supports the Agreement’s full implementation, which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, and prosperity,” the statement added.
“As the deal moves to FYROM’s Parliament for deliberation on constitutional changes, “we urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions,” the statement concluded.
The major opposition New Democracy party spokeswoman Maria Spyraki laughed off the referendum, saying this “show must now end,” comparing the coalition government to a television comedy show while calling for snap elections again.