NATO reported to have closely monitored possible Russian interference in Macedonia vote

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has given a guarded welcome to the referendum vote in Macedonia on Sunday.

He said, "I welcome the yes vote in the referendum. NATO’s door is open and Macedonian MPs ought to seize this historic opportunity.”

NATO is thought to have been closely watching for signs of Russian interference throughout the referendum campaign.

Macedonia’s hopes of joining the EU and NATO were plunged into doubt following the unexpectedly low turnout by voters in a historic referendum on Sunday to rename the Balkan state.

In the poll, citizens were asked whether they endorsed a landmark deal struck with Greece, rechristening the state North Macedonia in what was generally seen as a stepping stone to EU and NATO membership.

But the outcome suggests that calls to boycott the vote had had an effect, with only 34.7%, or 623,000 people, casting a ballot.

That fell short of the threshold of '50 percent plus one voter' that would have made it valid.

The country’s prime minister Zoran Zaev, who favours it joining the EU, says he will still try to ratify the name deal via a vote in parliament but whether that will pass is far from certain.

Reaction to Sunday’s referendum was swift with the EU enlargement  commissiioner Johannes Hahn saying in a statement, "With the very significant 'yes' vote, there is broad support support to the Prespa Agreement and for to the country's Euroatlantic path. I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines, in the interest of the country.”

The official added, “I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines, in the interest of the country.”

On Monday, Zaev said he would recognise the democratic decision of those who had voted emphasising that the plebiscite was critical for the country’s western orientation, despite failing to secure the 50% turnout required to make the vote valid.

 “No better agreement with Greece has been made or could be made and there is no other alternative than our country joining the EU. The referendum is decided by those who wanted to decide,” he told a news conference.

The Social Democrat leader now has to confront the task of pushing the controversial accord through parliament.

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.

The aim was for Skopje to formally adopt the name of Republic of North Macedonia, replacing Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

UK Tory MEP Charles Tannock had earlier voiced concern that turnout would not reach the required threshold to enter into law. He  also warned of the danger of “underestimating the influence of big neighbours like Russia determined to prevent NATO enlargement from trying to undetermine Macedonia's progress.”

He said, “I had hoped that Macedonia's people would support the referendum to change its name to Republic of North Macedonia following the Tsipras-Zaev historic agreement in June.”

He said the deal with Greece had “paved the way for eventual NATO accession negotiations as well 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.”

Former UK Europe Minister Dr Denis Macshane said a yes vote in Macedonia would have been “one of the most significant signals to come out of West Balkans in 20 years.”

The Zaev-Tsipras name agreement would have helped “break the impasse of getting Skopje close to the Nato and the EU and a big boost for business in Greece.”

“The opposition from the conservative New Democracy was worrying.”

Thwarting the name change, he said, was “a blow to hopes for the modernisation of the region.”

 Paul Taylor, senior fellow in the peace, security and defence programme at Friends of Europe think tank, said a yes vote would have been “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 would have opened the doors of NATO to another member despite Russian efforts to expand influence in the Western Balkans and attracted investment and economic support to Macedonia. In the longer term, it (a yes vote) would put the former Yugoslav republic on a path to join the EU.”

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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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