SKOPJE – Pensioner Draganski Stankovich and 29-year-old private sector employee Branislav Markovski were on opposite sides on Sunday in a clash that was ultimately between the past and the future, between history and change. For Stankovich, who planned to boycott the referendum, the deal renaming the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) “gives everything to the Greeks.” The younger man said he would be voting in favor of the agreement signed in June because it was “necessary for this small nation to become a part of Europe.”
It was hard to predict which side would win in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s referendum, though many were confident that the “yes” vote was in the bag, mainly as a result of the intense pressure exercised by the international community for the agreement to be ratified.
“Even the trees will turn out to vote so as to ensure a positive outcome,” one voter told me when I visited Skopje, FYROM’s capital, a few days before the plebiscite.
Despite firm opinions on both sides, however, there was little to suggest that the country was on the brink of a decision that would determine its fate. I didn’t see a single banner of scrawl of graffiti related to the referendum as I traveled along “Friendship Highway,” as Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced the main road linking the Evzones border crossing in northern Greece to Skopje would henceforth be known back in February – changing its name from “Alexander the Great,” as it had been baptized by his predecessor, the nationalist Nikola Gruevski, who served as premier from 2006 to 2016.
It was the same in the city center, where only Gruevski’s plaster and bronze statues of “national heroes” (Gotse Delchev, Metodi Andonov-Cento, Dame Gruev, Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon etc) seemed somewhat “ill at ease” following the fall from grace of other symbols Greece sees as expressing irredentist ambitions that Zaev promised to take down as part of the deal signed in the Prespes lake district in northern Greece.
“The atmosphere is incredibly muted. You’ll be lucky to see a poster or scrawl in favor of ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” a friend with experience in the politics of FYROM told me as we met in downtown Skopje.
“Judging from the amount of mobilization, the unprecedented number of foreign leaders who have visited and the promises they have made, ‘yes’ should be a done deal. But we shouldn’t rush to any conclusions, because there are also forces at work that can’t be seen,” he added. “We don’t know how all those people who have been nurtured on extreme patriotic rhetoric for years will act.”
He was not alone in voicing such concerns.
I visited the municipality of Gazi Baba, which has a sizable Albanian population. This is where NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg – during a visit a few days earlier to inspect the result of aid given by the alliance after a destructive flood in 2016 – addressed the people of FYROM and outlined the benefits of a “yes” vote on Sunday.
“I don’t understand why these people come here trying to change our minds,” said Stankovich when I asked him why he didn’t go see Stoltenberg speak. “Coming here from the American Pentagon, the [German] chancellery and other powerful countries to try influence us is just wrong.”
Unlike Stankovich, nurse Veronika Jakimovska planned to turn up for the referendum, but said she would be voting “no.”
“What other country had to change its name to join the European Union? It bothers me that we’re being pressured by foreigners to call ourselves ‘North Macedonia.’ It’s not fair,” she said.
“The whole planet has fallen in love with us all of a sudden. It is unprecedented for so many important people to come here in order to hold a knife to our throats so we’ll vote their way,” said taxi driver Goran Kimovski, adding that he nevertheless planned to vote in favor of the agreement. His rather surprising reason was “accession to NATO so we don’t have to fear the Albanians anymore.”
Radmilla has a degree in political sciences and asked that we didn’t publish her last name. She was also the only person I spoke to who refused to say whether she would vote in the referendum. “People are scared of speaking their minds, they are divided. Inside their homes and in cafes, they are split between ‘traitors’ and ‘progressives’; there is a lot of hate,” she said, voicing the opinion of several other people I spoke to who believed that there was a strong wave of opposition to the process that had chosen to stay silent.
Skopje’s central municipality is widely seen as Zaev’s stronghold and the truth is that almost everyone I spoke to in the downtown area claimed to be in favor of the agreement, if only to “lay the issue to rest.”
Markovski was firmly in the pro camp. “I will definitely vote,” he said. “The issue with Greece needs to be resolved. I have a duty as a citizen of this country to take a stand, even though it is an issue that should be solved by the politicians. It is necessary that our small nation becomes a part of Europe.”
I have to note that despite the fact that the country was on the brink of a momentous decision, I did not get any hint of the kind of anti-Greek sentiment that had been evident at other times when the name issue had come to the fore.
This was more than apparent in the stance of Tomislav, an elderly man I met in Skopje’s main square.
“We should congratulate our Greek brothers for delivering a loud slap to the Americans at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest,” he said, referring to Greece’s veto of FYROM’s NATO membership despite pressure from US President George W. Bush to resolve the name dispute.