Macedonia’s Name Change Wins—But Its Opponents Do Too

Voters overwhelmingly backed the move to change the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia”—but the victory was undermined by low turnout.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gives a press conference after the referendum polls closed in Skopje on September 30, 2018. (Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters)

In a historic referendum on Sunday, Macedonian voters backed by an overwhelming majority a deal to rename their country the “Republic of North Macedonia.” The move came with the promise of ending the country’s decades-long dispute with Greece over who gets to claim the name Macedonia, and of unlocking the country’s path to European Union and NATO membership.

But even with polls projecting a decisive ‘yes’ victory, it was clear well before the voting closed Sunday night that the deal was in trouble. At 11 a.m., just a few hours into voting, turnout stood at 8 percent. Four hours later, it increased to 22.8 percent—a marked improvement, but still well below the 50 percent turnout needed for the referendum to be considered valid under Macedonian law. By 6:30 p.m., with less than an hour left until the polls closed, only 34.6 percent of voters had turned out to vote. Regardless of the outcome, the referendum was technically already lost.

This hasn’t stopped Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev from declaring victory. Of the 36.9 percent of Macedonians who voted in the referendum, an overwhelming 91.5 percent backed the name-change deal, with just 5.7 percent opposed. “The people made a great choice and said ‘Yes’ to our future,” Zaev said Sunday after the polls closed, adding that the name-change deal would still go before the Macedonian Parliament for approval as planned. If lawmakers fail to approve the agreement, Zaev said, he would call for early elections. “A better deal with Greece will not and cannot exist,” he said. “There is no alternative to the EU and NATO membership of the country, and there will not be.”

Not everyone sees it that way. In the lead-up to the vote, many of the name-change deal’s opponents called for Macedonians to boycott the referendum in an effort to undermine the result—a campaign that largely seemed to work. James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics, told me that though the vote was nonbinding, its inability to garner enough participation could make it easier for those who are already opposed to the deal to vote against it when it makes its way to parliament. Zaev’s ruling Social Democratic Union party doesn’t have the two-thirds majority required to ratify the deal on their own, which means they will need the support of lawmakers from the nationalist opposition party, the VMRO-DPMNE. “They’ll need 10 VMRO [lawmakers] who are going to break ranks out of 50, so 20 percent,” Ker-Lindsay said. “The trouble is finding the MPs who are willing to do that.”

It won’t be easy to get that many opposition lawmakers to split. VMRO was a vocal opponent of the name-change deal. Though it didn’t call for an official boycott of the vote, urging Macedonians to instead vote “with their conscience,” it has already pointed to the low turnout as proof that the government’s efforts have failed. “The fact is that the agreement with Greece did not receive a green light,” Hristijan Mickovski, the VMRO leader, said Sunday in a statement. “This is a defeat not only for the agreement with Greece, but for the crime of those who are in power.”

But Zaev hasn’t given up yet, nor have the U.S. and European leaders urging Macedonians to back the deal in the first place. Alain Le Roy, a French diplomat and the former EU ambassador to Macedonia, told reporters on Monday that the EU will still actively urge Macedonian lawmakers to accept the deal. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a statement saying that the U.S. would do the same.

Zaev pledged to have the name-change deal before the Macedonian Parliament by next week for approval. If the deal is approved in Skopje, it must then be ratified by lawmakers in Athens, where Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is facing his own political opposition to the deal. In both cases, Ker-Lindsay said, neither side will have the luxury of time.

“A lot is going to depend on what happens in the next few days,” he said. “People will want to do everything in their power to keep this alive … They’ll want to try and keep this moving, and keep Greece on board. Because if this collapses, we don’t know when there’s going to be an election in Greece, and if the [opposition party] New Democracy win it, they’re bound to kill it. It could very well be that this would be the end of the road.”