In the run-up to Macedonia’s referendum on changing the country’s name (scheduled for September 30), the main focus of the government in Skopje has become ensuring a high turnout. In the current polarizing political environment, with President Gjorge Ivanov calling for a boycott of the referendum, the ruling coalition is scrambling to mobilize every single vote (Nezavisen Vesnik, September 24; VOA, September 23). Although the referendum is only consultative and non-binding—meaning that the parliament will make the final decision—sufficient citizen participation of over 50 percent would lend much-needed legitimacy to a historic step and ease tensions in the country. On June 17, Skopje and Athens signed a landmark agreement on changing the name of Macedonia to North Macedonia in exchange for Greece’s full support for its northern neighbor to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. The deal also includes the recognition of the Macedonian nation and Macedonian language, a compromise by the Greek side that seemed nearly impossible over the past two decades.
Meanwhile, Macedonia’s Constitutional Court on September 19 rejected a motion to scrap the referendum on constitutional grounds (Balkan Insight, September 19). The groundbreaking decision cleared the way for the referendum and averted a major political crisis in the country if the “name” deal were derailed. Three separate motions were filed requesting a constitutionality review of the parliament’s decision, on July 30, to schedule a referendum—filed by the ultra-left Levitsa party (not represented in parliament), the Macedonian diaspora organization World Macedonian Congress, and a private citizen from the town of Kumanovo. The petitioners also objected to the referendum question itself, claiming it was confusing and manipulative, as it does not treat the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration and its name dispute with Greece as separate matters. The referendum question asks “Are you in favor of EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?” Finally, the authority of Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov to sign the agreement with Greece was also questioned, mostly because the country’s President Gjorge Ivanov is against the deal. The Constitutional Court voted 7-2 against the motions (Balkan Insight, September 19).
For the referendum to be successful, more than half of 1,806,000 registered voters—or over 903,000—must cast their vote. Based on the 2016 election results, the ruling Social Democratic coalition, the Albanian parties (which firmly support the name deal) and several smaller ethnic parties can only secure about 700,000 voters together (Balkan Insight, September 19). It seems that without approximately 200,000 votes from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which has not called officially for either participation or a boycott, the referendum may not succeed and could be rendered invalid. Although there are other legal options for pushing through with constitutional changes to reflect the new name of the country, a failed referendum will make it difficult to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament for those amendments to be approved. At least eleven votes from VMRO-DPMNE would be needed to make up 80 votes for the required two-thirds majority in the 120-seat legislature. The Social Democrats and the Albanian parties, which back the name deal, hold only 69 seats in the current assembly (Macedonia’s 2016 Election Handbook, p.112).
Recent opinion polls indicate a positive forecast for the referendum turnout so far. They also show that the majority of those intending to vote would approve the country’s name change—over 70 percent. M-Prospect agency conducted a survey in August showing that 57.8 percent of registered voters would take part in the referendum, 28.8 percent would not vote, while 11.2 percent said they were undecided (Idscs.org.mk, September 10). Moreover, almost 30 percent of VMRO-DPMNE’s supporters said they would indeed vote. While the Social Democratic party has nearly maximized the expected turnout among its electorate (94 percent of Social Democratic voters said they would take part in the referendum), there is a significant reserve of almost 30 percent of Albanians who may or may not come out to the polls this weekend. A comparable minority has been particularly frustrated with Macedonia’s lack of progress in Euro-Atlantic integration. Thus, the get-out-the-vote campaign conducted by the government with the help of a slew of foreign dignitaries visiting Skopje in the last month may help bring out most of the Albanian vote.
In this context, the visit of United States Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to Skopje on September 17 could play a critical role in mobilizing the vote, particularly among local Albanians, with which the US has enjoyed sky-high popularity ever since NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Mattis’ trip to Macedonia represented the first such visit by a US Secretary of Defense in 14 years and signified a critical US commitment to this Western Balkan and its accession to NATO (NovaTV, September 13; Deutsche Welle—Macedonian service, September 17). Mattis warned that Russia is trying to influence the upcoming referendum by financing pro-Russian groups and conducting broader influence campaigns (RFE/RL, September 17).
A week earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also visited Skopje, declaring that Macedonians have the opportunity to vote on September 30 for membership in NATO and EU, as the name issue and the membership issue are intertwined. She stressed that Berlin has a strong interest in regional stability, which, in turn, is essential to the stability of the European Union. Germany is Macedonia’s biggest trade partner, with 47 percent of Macedonian exports destined for its market (European Western Balkans, September 8).
Though young Macedonians tend to back their country’s European future, many in the older generation remain fond of the name “Macedonia,” which was never officially recognized by international organizations. In the highly polarized political environment, traditional institutions such as the Macedonian Church support a “Yes” vote, while the country’s president called for a boycott (speaking to the Macedonian diaspora in the US), a position that may heavily influence the VMRO-DPMNE supporter’s turnout. Meanwhile, Internet trolls continue attempts to influence social media users to suppress the vote (RFE/RL, September 22; VOA, September 23).
The stakes are high for both Macedonia and the Balkans. As former Macedonian foreign minister Professor Denko Maleski recently pointed out, the domestic situation resembles the divisions in Ukraine. A potential failure of the referendum could deepen divisions in Macedonian society, he warned, particularly with the Albanian minority, which wants the country to join Euro-Atlantic structures. “The name-change deal with Greece must not fail because that would mean a very uncertain future for Macedonia,” he told the Macedonian Service of RFE/RL (Slobodnaevropa.mk, September 14).