The vast majority of voters who took part in Macedonia’s referendum on September 30 supported changing the country’s name to North Macedonia in order to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union, as outlined in the so-called Prespa Agreement, signed between Skopje and Athens last June. However, only 36.89 percent of the registered voters showed up to answer the question “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?” (Sec.mk, October 3). The Constitution requires at least half of registered voters to take part in a referendum for it to be considered valid. Since the September 30 plebiscite was only consultative and not binding, the parliament will now have to make the final decision.
The State Election Commission announced that 666,344 voters had cast their ballot, with 91.46 percent voting for and 5.66 percent against (Sec.mk, October 3). But the election lists contain the names of 1,806,336 total voters, a number disputed almost universally as Macedonia has not held a census since 2002. According to local experts, there are no more than 1.4 million voters residing in the country, because hundreds of thousands of Macedonians emigrated to live and work abroad with limited ability to participate in elections (Balkan Insight, October 3).
Turnout was much higher in municipalities with a predominantly ethnic-Albanian population, indicating that most of the ethnic Macedonians abstained or boycotted the referendum (Nova Makedonija, October 2). The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which threw the country into a nationalistic frenzy after NATO denied Skopje an invitation to join the alliance in 2008, announced a victory. VMRO-DPMNE never openly advocated for a boycott; however, just days ahead of the referendum, the country’s President Gjorge Ivanov (elected on the same party’s ticket) called for one from the floor of the United Nations General Assembly (RFE/RL, September 27; Nezavisen Vesnik, September 24).
Since the consultative referendum failed to produce a valid result, it is now up to the parliament to adopt constitutional amendments to change Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia and open the way for its Euro-Atlantic integration. The opposite decision would mean protracting the current stalemate, indefinitely postponing membership in NATO and the EU, facing increased internal polarization, and deepening the ethnic divide, which could threaten Macedonia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, Macedonia will have to continue using the awkward name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in all international organizations.
On the night after the referendum, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced that despite the low turnout he would proceed with the implementation of the Prespa Agreement because the majority voted “Yes.” But Zaev will need the support of 80 members of the 120-member legislature, while his party and the four Albanian parties in parliament have only 69 seats combined (see EDM, September 24). It is not clear whether any of the VMRO-DPMNE parliamentarians would be willing to back the deal given that most of their party’s supporters boycotted the referendum. If a compromise is not negotiated, a snap election is likely to be called in November (MIA, October 3).
However, elections may not resolve the deadlock, unless the ruling coalition musters a two-thirds majority or the opposition gains more than half of the parliamentary mandates to form a government—in which case, the deal may be rejected entirely. Neither scenario seems likely at the moment: VMRO-DPMNE is still battling internal problems stemming from corruption scandals during its long period in government, and the Social Democrats together with the Albanian parties will have difficulty gaining 12 more seats.
Time is not on the side of the “Yes” camp either. Macedonian politicians correctly estimated that a deal would be easier to sign with a left-wing government in power in Greece, as indicated by leaked minutes of two meetings of Macedonian political party leaders in Skopje that preceded the Prespa Agreement (Ekathimerini, October 2). But Greece is heading for elections in 2019, and the latest opinion polls show that the ruling SYRIZA coalition is trailing the opposition Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy), a party that firmly rejects the deal with Macedonia (TVXS, September 23). Thus, the Macedonian opposition’s hopes for a better deal with Athens in the near future may never materialize, especially if nationalist parties return to power in both countries.
A compromise between the main political actors in Skopje seems to be the last chance for a long time to come for the country to move from the margins of the Balkans to a better future for its young people, who, as one of the most marginalized groups in the country, clearly support a European Macedonia (VOA, September 18). If this chance is missed, Macedonia may face the danger of disenchantment of its younger generation and continuing brain drain. Furthermore—and more threatening for the stability of the entire Balkans—growing frustration within the Albanian minority, which wants to see a secure and prosperous Macedonia within NATO and the EU, may lead to potential unrest and even incite separatist aspirations. With ongoing discussions about border changes and territory swaps between Kosovo and Serbia, some Macedonian Albanians may see a precedent to seek partition and ethnic homogenization as well, a scenario that could open the flood gates in the Balkans.
The Russian leadership, which opposes Macedonia’s accession to NATO and has been accused of financing a campaign to dissuade voters from participating in the referendum, is evidently aware how critical this moment is for Skopje. Stressing the low turnout that “clearly indicates that Macedonian voters chose to boycott the solutions imposed on Skopje and Athens externally,” the Russian foreign ministry proclaimed the referendum invalid and pronounced the Prespa Agreement inconsistent with international law and the Constitution of Macedonia (Mid.ru, October 1).
Moscow warned that should Macedonia proceed with the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, it would bring the results of the talks between Skopje and Athens before the UN Security Council for consideration. In other words, if a compromise is achieved in the Macedonian parliament this week, Russia would veto the Greek-Macedonian agreement in the Security Council. This would be the last resort for Moscow after failing to sabotage the deal through covert influence operations in both Greece and Macedonia (see EDM, August 6). But Skopje stands firm, saying that Macedonia’s historic agreement with Greece, negotiated under the aegis of UN Special Envoy Matthew Nimetz, does not depend on the Security Council, which will only be informed by the UN Secretary General when the talks are successfully completed (Balkan Insight, October 4).