An inconclusive name change referendum in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – 91.4 percent support but only 36.9 percent turnout, making it non-binding – has put the country’s leaders even more at odds with each other.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who had said he would quit if the referendum to change his country’s name to North Macedonia in a deal with Greece was defeated, said despite the effects of a boycott called by opponents that he’s convinced residents want to go ahead.
Ironically, the question on the ballot didn’t use the name North Macedonia, only whether voters approved of the agreement that would open the door to NATO entry and starting European Union accession talks after Greece’s anti-nationalist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lifted vetoes.
The European Union, NATO and the United States urged the small Balkan nation country to move forward with the next steps required to enact the deal with the US especially keen on getting what would be North Macedonia into the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the deal.
The agreement was brokered with the help of United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who had failed for two decades to find a solution before resuming negotiations earlier this year after a three-year break, with Greece reportedly being squeezed to concede.
Zaev, who negotiated the agreement that had eluded his predecessors, said he would now move forward with the next step, which is seeking a two-thirds majority in the 120-member Parliament for required constitutional amendments dropping irredentist claims on Greek lands, including the real Macedonia, an ancient abutting Greek province, and the second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki.
If the amendments do not pass, Zaev said he would have no choice but to call an early election which could scuttle the deal. If he gets the okay for the amendments, the question will go to the Greek Parliament, likely early in 2019.
Despite opposition from Tsipras’ junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the Premier is confident he has enough votes from rival parties – even from within ANEL.
That would leave Kammenos in the tenuous position of either ordering his lawmakers to vote against the deal and, as he threatened, yank the party in a bid to bring down the government, or just vote against the deal knowing it will pass and he can claim he stood against it while still staying in power.
Surveys show ANEL is at only about 1 percent in popularity, far below the 3 percent needed to get back into Parliament in the next elections, which must be held by October, 2019 but with growing speculation Tsipras will call snap polls early next year to prevent blowback from more pension cuts he agreed to implement on Jan. 1 but is now trying to stop.
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FYROM’s State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski said the Constitution stipulates a minimum 50 percent turnout for a referendum to be considered binding and that it could not be considered to have reached a valid decision “because more than a half the total number of voters registered in the voter list didn’t cast ballots.”
The government said the Constitutionally-required turnout bar didn’t matter because it said the referendum was only advisory and that it showed a true reflection of the voters’ will because the more than 600,000 people who voted in favor of the deal was far more than the number that had voted for any politician in the country’s short history.
Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska told reporters the government would spend seven to 10 days seeking the necessary support from lawmakers who he said “have no other option than to follow the vote of the majority of the country in order for this country to accelerate the process of acceding to both NATO and the European Union.”
But opponents of the deal with Greece, who say it undermines national interests and had advocated for a boycott of the referendum, seized on the low turnout to interpret the result as a clear rejection of the agreement.
Political analyst Petar Arsovski said the referendum’s outcome would deepen divisions in FYROM, even though the deal would allow citizens to have a Macedonian identity, language and culture and call themselves Macedonians, nor North Macedonians.
“Unfortunately, as opposed to providing closure, the referendum still leaves the country in turmoil,” Arsovski said, noting that on the one hand an overwhelming majority of those who voted approved of the deal, but turnout was low.
“I think it would be very difficult for the Prime Minister to reach the deal with the opposition lawmakers over the constitutional changes and to continue with the next phase,” Arsovski said. “I think Macedonia is entering into uncertainty and that the crisis will deepen,” he added, using the name that the country calls itself, as do 140 other countries.
The main opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE party said the contradictory result was a clear rejection of the deal with Greece.
“The people have clearly sent a message to Zaev that he has no legitimacy to push this deal. Instead of manipulating he should face the reality and reject this agreement, which is at the expense of the Republic of Macedonia,” it said in a statement. FYROM’s President Gjorge Ivanov had led the call for a voter boycott and didn’t vote. He had refused to sign the first time the Parliament approved the deal but was obliged by law to do so after it passed a second time.
FYROM’s international partners called for parliamentary support for the deal. “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,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said .
EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted he expects “all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged the country’s politicians “to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity.” He said on Twitter that NATO’s door was still open to FYROM “but all national procedures have to be completed.”
The June deal with Greece aims to resolve a dispute dating from FYROM’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 when Greece’s then-ruling New Democracy – which now opposes the deal – allowed the use of the name Macedonia in what was supposed to be a temporary acronym.
But after successive FYROM governments began claiming and coveting Greek lands, and put out maps showed they belonged to FYROM, Greece used a veto to keep its neighbor out of NATO and having EU entry hopes.
The agreement has faced vociferous opposition from a sizeable portion of the population on both sides of the border, with detractors saying their respective governments conceded too much to the other side. With 62 percent of Greeks opposed, Tsipras has barred a referendum.
The Greek government said the low turnout was “troubling,” but stressed the importance of the name deal clearing the next major obstacle.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Greece would not lift its objections to FYROM joining NATO or the EU unless Macedonia amends its constitution.
“Now it’s up to (FYROM’s) Parliament, and we hope that the move by Mr. Zaev’s government to amend the constitution will succeed,” Tzanakopoulos said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)