Crunch vote on controversial name change in Macedonia "too close to call"

A new poll says that most people in Macedonia believe that integration of the country into NATO and the EU is the best way to stabilize and develop a region still suffering instability from the 1990s wars triggered by Yugoslavia’s break-up.

The findings of the survey come just ahead of a much awaited referendum in Macedonia on Sunday which aims to finally resolve its long standing and bitter name change issue with Greece.

Macedonia's president Gorge Ivanov has criticised an agreement that would change the country’s  name

to end a long-standing dispute with Greece.

He has called on his compatriots to boycott the vote on the deal that takes place on September 30.

Ivanov says he will not vote in the referendum, saying the deal with Greece is "harmful and defeating" for  Macedonia.

Macedonia’s bids for EU and NATO membership, first made several years ago, were blocked by Greece until June when it struck a deal with Athens on the name of the ex-Yugoslav republic to end a 27-year-long dispute.

Greece maintained that Macedonia’s name implied territorial claims to its northern province of the same name.

Skopje must now formally adopt the name of Republic of North Macedonia, replacing Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

To secure popular support for the required constitutional amendments, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government called a referendum with one question - are you for or against EU and NATO membership through implementation of the name deal.

On Thursday, Zaev said, “NATO membership would bring stability and security, which is very important for investment.”

A new poll found 57 percent of respondents planning to vote on Sunday. Of those, 70 percent said they would vote for the name change.

Nearly 40% of the respondents to the poll believe that the country is moving in the right direction, which is a significant improvement compared to last year’s results, when the number was only 15%.

The survey was conducted on the sample of 1,100 adult citizens with the response rate of 69%.

But whether turnout will exceed the minimum 50 percent for the referendum to be valid is uncertain given a boycott campaign backed by Macedonian nationalists opposed to the name change.

Zaev said, “Russia is openly saying it is against Macedonian membership in NATO and the EU, and we understand the position of Russia.”

Speaking at an event in Brussels on Wednesday, Edward Joseph, Executive Director of the National Council on US-Libya Relations with 12 years’ experience working in the region, spoke of the “instability”  and “division” in three countries in particular, including Macedonia which he said faced “destiny defining” vote on Sunday.

Speaking on Friday, UK Tory MEP Charles Tannock said, 'I am hoping that Macedonia's people will support the referendum to change its name to Republic of North Macedonia following the Tsipras-Zaev historic agreement in June.”

“The current opinion polls suggest in Macedonia there will be a majority support but it might not make the 50% turnout threshold to the make the outcome of the vote a binding result. The other problem is the announcement by VMRO-DPMNE opposition party they will abstain on the Parliamentary vote which may mean the vote doesn't satisfy the quorum for constitutional change.”

Tannock said, “If the new state of North Macedonia is recognised by Greece it paves the way for eventual NATO accession negotiations as well as as opening EU accession talks which Greece has blocked for over a decade. When added to the possible Belgrade-Pristina talks to consider territorial swaps and mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosovo, the Western Balkans are making big progress in terms of political resolution of their major disputes.”

He added, “However I do not underestimate the influence of big neighbours like Russia determined to prevent NATO enlargement from trying to undetermine Macedonia's progress.”

Foreign affairs committee chair David McAllister said, "The agreement between Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras has been a major achievement. They have paved the way to solving a long lasting dispute. On Sunday, the citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have the unique opportunity to decide on their country's future. The Macedonians have the choice between the European path with concrete benefits for its citizens such as security, stability, democracy, the rule of law and economic growth and – on the other hand – isolation and stagnation. I sincerely hope that the people will embrace the country’s future, with reforms and with the EU and NATO integration as final step."

Former UK Europe Minister Dr Denis Macshane said, "A positive vote in Macedonia will be one of the most significant signals to come out of West Balkans in 20 years. The Zaev-Tsipras name agreement - interestingly initiated by two centre-left prime ministers - should help break the impasse of getting Skopje close to the Nato and the EU. It will be a big boost for business in Greece if its immediate northern neighbour joins the EU's Customs Union and Single Market.

“The Greek parliament has still to ratify the name change and the opposition from the conservative New Democracy is worrying. It will be a blow to hopes for the modernisation of the region if for any reason the name change is thwarted.”

More comment came from Paul Taylor, senior fellow in the peace, security and defence programme at Friends of Europe think tank, who said, “A vote to approve the name change would be a rare triumph for patient diplomacy over angry nationalism in the Balkans at a time when tolerance and liberal democracy are under siege from flag-waving nativists and populists across Europe.

“It will open the doors of NATO to another member despite Russian efforts to expand influence in the Western Balkans. It will attract investment and economic support to Macedonia, and in the longer term, it will put the former Yugoslav republic on a path to join the EU.” “In Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras deserves credit for facing down Greek nationalists who had blocked a solution for 25 years.”

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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