Strong Support, But Low Turnout, In Macedonia Vote On Name Change
RFE/RL's Balkan Service September 30, 2018
SKOPJE -- The vast majority of voters in Macedonia's referendum on September 30 accepted a name change that could pave the way for the Balkan nation's entrance into the European Union and NATO, partial results show, but the vote was marred by low turnout.
With ballots from half of the polling stations counted, 90.8 percent of voters were in favor of an agreement with neighboring Greece to change the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia, according to election authorities.
Only 6.2 percent of voters opposed the move.
However, half an hour before polls closed, just 34.1 percent of the electorate had cast ballots -- short of the 50 percent needed for it to be valid. State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski said the figure was based on data from 85 percent of polling stations.
Speaking after polls closed, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared the nonbinding ballot a "success for democracy and for a European Macedonia."
"The will of those who voted must be converted into political action in parliament," he told a news conference, threatening to call snap elections should opponents block the constitutional name change in parliament.
Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party said that the strongest message in the referendum was sent by those who boycotted or voted against the agreement with Greece.
"The fact is that the name agreement did not get the green light, but a stop [sign] from the people," Christian Mickoski said.
Opponents to the deal started celebrating while balloting still was under way, chanting slogans outside the parliament building in the capital, Skopje.
No major problems were reported on voting day.
"I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations," Zaev said after casting his ballot in his hometown of Strumica.
The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.
Greece says the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece, an EU and NATO member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bids to join the two organizations.
In June, Athens and Skopje hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the name Republic of North Macedonia.
Macedonia's economy is sputtering after a two-year financial crisis that pushed unemployment above 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the Balkans, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.
"It is my duty to make my voice heard," said 91-year-old Velika Novevska, a pensioner from Novaci. "We are voting today for the younger generation and for the benefit of the country."
"Changing our name is the price we have to pay if the country wants to join the EU and NATO," said Mirche Chekredzi, head of corporate strategy at the offset and digital printing company Arkus in the capital, Skopje.
"Within the EU there will be no customs barriers, faster deliveries. It would cut a lot of bureaucracy for smaller companies like ours," he added.
Analysts also say further integrating Western Balkan countries such as Macedonia into European and transatlantic structures is the best way to ensure the stability and development of a region still healing from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"We must not forget that, if the referendum fails, we will remain the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as I don't believe any other Macedonian politicians will be brave enough to enter this battle," former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told RFE/RL.
"And I think that the international community will completely cool on this issue, so I really think we have to use this opportunity," he added.
Not everyone agrees, however, including President Gjorge Ivanov, who called the name change a "criminal act" that violates the Balkan country's constitution.
Ivanov has staunchly declared that he won't vote in the referendum, and in a speech to Macedonia's diaspora in the U.S. city of Detroit on September 22 tried to tamp down expectations that a "yes" vote would guarantee EU and NATO accession.
"Even with the adoption of the harmful Greek treaty and [relevant] constitutional amendments, membership in NATO and the European Union will not come automatically," Ivanov said.
Government officials say they have 71 deputies ready to approve a constitutional amendment accepting the name change, short of the two-thirds majority, or 80 deputies, needed to amend the constitution.
Mickoski of the VMRO-DPMNE has said that, if the referendum is successful and the majority votes in support of the referendum issue, he expects his party will respect the result.
With reporting by AP and spa
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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