On Sunday, citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be voting on the agreement with Greece to change the name of their country. Macedonians will be asked the following question: “Are you in favour of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?”
Since its independence, the former Yugoslav republic has been in a silent conflict with its southern neighbour. The Greeks consider its name Republic of Macedonia, which the country used after leaving the joint union, to imply territorial aspirations to the region in Greece that bears the same name. Demanding the country uses a different name, Greece has blocked FYROM from progressing towards joining EU and NATO for almost three decades.
Since the fall of the previous government led by Nikola Gruevski and the election of Zoran Zaev, a Social Democrat, the country embarked on a creation of new political agendas.The final result is the agreement with Greece in June that the FYROM will be called the Republic of North Macedonia in the future. On Sunday, the citizens will cast their judgement. The referendum campaign, however, has been a contentious one.
“Every vote in favour of the deal will be in the best interest of our children. We have the obligation to participate in the voting on Sunday”,
said PM Zoran Zaev in his last meetings held with voters in the eastern part of the country. Hristijan Micksoski, leader of Macedonia’s conservative opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, has rejected the agreement.
“SDSM (the ruling party) does not have the support of the citizens in the referendum. The agreement is the worst possible solution for Macedonia”, Mickoski said. The country’s president Gjorge Ivanov, close ally of VMRO-DPMNE, has called the name change a “noose” and “a flagrant violation of sovereignty”, and is urging the voters to boycott the referendum.
The divisions amongst politicians are also reflected amongst ordinary people, says Boris Georgievski, editor of Deutche Welle’s Macedonian edition, in a comment to Serbia’s B92.”The referendum on name change is everywhere, in the streets, in cafes, public debates and meetings by political parties are held every day, and of course, this has been a major topic in the media for months, which brings a lot of pressure, there are tensions in all three main campaign groups – “for”, “against” and “boycott”, says Georgievski.
Such polarised and politicised environment is making a weak country even weaker, creating opportunities for global leaders to take advantage of it, says Tine Kračun, director of the Institute for Strategic Solutions. The struggle for influence in the region between Russia and China on one hand and EU and NATO on the other, has become ever more evident in the run up to the Macedonian referendum.
“Due to internal (political) conflicts, Macedonia is a weak state and the global superpowers are exploiting that”,
says Kračun. “It has been a while since this referendum ceased to be only a Macedonian internal political matter, but a conflict between the interests of Russia and China on the one hand, and the US and the EU on the other”, he adds.
In an ongoing effort to boost support for Zaev and the “for” camp, a string of western officials have visited the country, including Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor.
During a visit earlier this week, Mattis urged Macedonians to vote in favour of changing their country’s name as it would accelerate its path to EU and NATO membership. Stoltenberg used a similar tone, saying “NATO’s door is open, but only the people of this country can decide to walk through it”, he said.
“So, your future is in your hands. We wait for you in NATO.”
– Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general.
The western officials warned that the agreement is put at risk due to Russia’s interference, with Mattis accusing Russia of trying to suppress the voter turnout. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, has denied this, saying that Moscow has done nothing “which could be interpreted as favouring a particular vote”.
Reuters reports the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity said this week it had found evidence that automated Twitter accounts are “behind an effort to suppress voter turnout”. “New accounts (created less than 60 days ago) make up 10% of the conversation – a figure higher than in the recent Mexican and almost three times higher than in the Italian elections,” it said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
In a recent poll, Macedonia’s Telma TV found 57% of respondents were planning to vote on Sunday and 70% of those said they would vote yes. But whether turnout does exceed the minimum threshold is uncertain given the boycott campaign. Georgievski believes “it would be a miracle” if more than 50% do turn out.
“In any variant, the final word will be with the Macedonian parliament that has to convene constitutional changes with a two-thirds majority. This requires the support of the part of the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE. The whole process in the assembly will last for at least three months, which means that the referendum will only be a litmus test for what is to follow”, Georgievski concludes in an interview with B92.