A referendum on changing the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to “Republic of North Macedonia” to pave the way for NATO membership attracted tepid voter participation Sunday, with turnout standing below 29 percent two hours before polls close.
Citizens in FYROM were voting on whether to accept a government deal with Greece to end a dispute dating from the early 1990s, when the country declared independence from Yugoslavia. Greece argued that its small neighbor’s name implied territorial ambitions on its own Macedonia province and blocked the country’s efforts to join NATO.
But the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border, with detractors accusing their respective governments of conceding too much to the other side.
In FYROM, those opposing the deal urged voters to boycott Sunday’s referendum. The critics included President Gjorge Ivanov, who called the agreement with Greece a “flagrant violation of sovereignty.”
High voter turnout would help FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who negotiated the deal with Greece, to persuade lawmakers to vote on constitutional changes needed for the deal to become final.
However, the government called the referendum a consultative move, meaning it could interpret the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of turnout. FYROM’s Constitution requires a minimum turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters for a binding referendum.
State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski said that at 5 p.m., two hours before polls shut, turnout was at 28.8 percent.
The question posed to voters at the ballot box was: “Are you in favor of membership in NATO and European Union by accepting the deal between [the] Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”
Supporters of the deal, led by Zaev, have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country’s future prosperity, the key to its ability to join NATO and, eventually, the EU. It would be a major step for a country that less than two decades ago almost descended into civil war, when some in its ethnic Albanian minority took up arms against the government, seeking greater rights.
Zaev cast his ballot in the southeastern town of Strumica and urged a strong turnout.
“I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations,” Zaev said. “I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multiethnic nature of this country and the political unity of this country.”
But opponents, pointing to the low voter participation, described the referendum as a failure.
“Even now, we can say that the referendum will not be successful,” Dragan Ugrinovski from opposition group Macedonia is Boycotting said. The group’s monitors put turnout at 19 percent at 3 p.m., he said – slightly lower than the State Electoral Commission’s just over 22 percent at the same time.
“Macedonian people and citizens do not want to join NATO. They don’t want the change of name, identity, history and tradition of Macedonian people,” Ugrinovski said during a news conference.
A spokesman for opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Ivo Kotevski, criticized the name deal as something that would force the people of FYROM to give up their national identity.
“Everything is wrong with that deal. It’s a deal that will have long-term consequences,” he said. “We will lose our identity because of the crime of Zaev. It’s wrong to change the constitution, it’s wrong to change the name.”
Djose Tanevski was among the early voters in Skopje, FYROM’s capital.
“I came here because of the future of our children, who should have a decent life, a life in a lovely country, which will become a member of the European Union and NATO,” he said.
But others had no intention of voting.
“I’m disappointed with all that is happening with Macedonia,” said 34-year-old Bojan Krstevski. “I cannot give up my Macedonian identity. I don’t want to be North Macedonian.”
The referendum has stirred strong interest in the West, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis among top foreign officials in Skopje recently to back the “Yes” side.
Russia, however, is not keen on NATO expanding in a part of Europe once under its sphere of influence. Mattis said there was “no doubt” that Moscow had funded groups inside FYROM to campaign against the name change.
If the “Yes” vote wins, the next step is for the government to amend parts of the country’s constitution to ensure it doesn’t contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece. Only after those changes are approved by the parliament of FYROM does the deal face ratification in Greece.
Even if people vote in favor of the deal, the agreement still faces several hurdles.
The required constitutional amendments need approval by two-thirds majority of parliament’s 120 members. So far Zaev has pledges of support from 73 lawmakers – seven short.
Once the constitutional amendments are approved in FYROM, Greece must ratify the deal.
But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces political problems of his own. His governing coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks head Panos Kammenos, has vowed to vote against the deal in parliament, leaving Tsipras reliant on opposition parties and independent lawmakers to push it through. [AP]