The referendum this Sunday on in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on its name deal with Greece is seen as pivotal for the country’s future and the involvement of NATO and the European Union in the western Balkans.
The high stakes have prompted a long list of western leaders to urge voters in the Balkan country to approve the deal, under which FYROM will be called “North Macedonia.”
In a Facebook video message addressed to the people of FYROM on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron described the deal as crucial for the country’s future. “I strongly support it and firmly believe this agreement is good for you, for the region and Europe,” he said.
The agreement signed in northern Greece’s Prespes lake district on June 17 stipulates that FYROM must also change its constitution, ridding it of anything deemed as expressing irredentist ambitions over Greece’s northern province of Macedonia.
“You must choose and decide whether you are in favor of changing the constitution or not,” Macron said.
Western powers are aiming to fend off Russian influence in the region and NATO has already extended an invitation to Skopje to join the alliance as long as the name deal in ratified.
French Ambassador to FYROM Christian Thimonier put it bluntly on Friday, saying that “the choice is between North Macedonia and North Korea.”
Moscow vehemently opposes the expansion of NATO’s influence in the Balkans and the US has accused Russia of interfering in FYROM to sway the vote against the deal.
The main fear of western leaders has been the dissemination in recent months of fake news and the influence Russia has in the Balkan nation.
FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev also has to contend with the opposition to the deal by the VMRO party which has, however, told its supporters to vote with their conscience rather than ordering them to oppose the agreement.
Another obstacle to the deal is FYROM’s diaspora, which is almost unanimously against. However, only 3,500 have registered to vote and their influence in the referendum is expected to be minor.