Will a name-change referendum say yes to North Macedonia?

On Sunday, almost 1.8 million voters in former Yugoslav Macedonia will decide whether to change the country’s name to Northern Macedonia.

The proposal stems from an agreement last June with the Greek government aiming to normalise relations between the two countries.

Athens and Skopje have been at odds since the fall of Yugoslavia, when its six republics declared independence, the southernmost calling itself the Republic of Macedonia.

Greece objects on the grounds that this implies territorial claims on its northern region of Macedonia.

In return for adding the qualifier “Northern” to its name, Greece will lift its standing veto on its neighbour’s membership in the European Union and NATO.

The question put to voters is: “Are you in favour of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?” 

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Polls will open at 7am (05:00GMT) and close at 7pm (17:00GMT).

1. Which way is the referendum likely to go?

Opinion polls show a large bloc of voters supports the Prespes Agreement – a survey on August 8 showed 41.5 percent in favour and 31.5 percent against the name change. An August 29 survey showed 57 percent in favour, and 38 percent against.

But the crucial question is how many will vote?

To be constitutionally valid, the referendum requires a majority of 50 percent plus one, from a turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters plus one.

The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has increasingly encouraged people to boycott the vote rather than voting no as it does not put the party on the wrong side of history should the yes vote have the majority, and it is easier to persuade people to do something passive than something active.

A survey released this month suggests that this tactic may be working. By its reckoning, only 58 percent of voters will cast ballots on Sunday.

Even though that doesn’t invalidate the result, it reduces the yes vote to 40.9 percent – not enough to win, and below the 41.5 percent of yes voters polled in July.

2. What are the main arguments for and against?

The strongest argument for a yes vote is clearly that it removes Greece’s veto on the country’s path to European Union and NATO membership.

But those who favour joining the EU (83 percent) and NATO (77 percent) are roughly double the number polling in favour of the Prespes Agreement. 

Some object to the very fact of a referendum, pointing out that no other former Yugoslav republic had to undergo this process.

Others object to the qualifier “Northern”, saying that it changes their identity. According to the agreement, their passports will henceforth list their nationality as “Macedonian – citizen of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”.

When talks with Greece began in January, US special envoy Matthew Nimetz handed the two sides a list of five names: Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia), Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia), Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia), Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardarska Macedonia) and Republika Makedonija (Skopje). 

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Greece was prepared to accept any of the first four. The government in Skopje selected “Northern” as the least objectionable.

Some voters also object to the stipulations of Article 7, whereby “the official language and other attributes of [former Yugoslav Macedonia] are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage [of Greece]”.

This means that those who self-identify as ethnic Macedonians abjure all claim to Greece’s Hellenistic heritage – the empire of Alexander the Great and its aftermath – which is a component of the Greek sense of nationhood.

These cultural distinctions were included on Greece’s insistence, to sweeten the pill of sharing Macedonian identity with their Slav neighbours, something most Greeks still object to.

The want it made clear that non-Greek Macedonians are so named by virtue of shared geography, not ethnicity or heritage.

Despite the fact that the agreement officially only addresses the issue of the country’s name, it is the separate issue of identity that could sink it.

This is underscored by the fact that ethnic Albanians, who comprise one-third of the population of former Yugoslav Macedonia, support the agreement to the tune of 88 percent.

Unaffected by the identity issue, they simply want the country to press ahead with EU and NATO membership.

3. What are NATO and the EU saying?

They are strongly encouraging the yes vote.

“I sense a real political will to move on with your country’s Euro-Atlantic integration,” said European Council President Donald Tusk when he visited Skopje in April.

The Sofia Declaration, which the EU signed in May, lends “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a joint statement with Tusk after the Prespes Agreement was signed, said: “We hope this unique opportunity to re-launch the wider W. Balkan region’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration will not be wasted. This agreement sets an example to others on how to consolidate peace and stability across the region.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Defence Secretary General James Mattis, NATO’s Stoltenberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, all visited Skopje this month to support the yes vote.

4. Why is this referendum important to the EU and NATO?

European Union enlargement stalled after the addition of Croatia in 2013, and was reversed with the departure of Britain in 2016. The Western Balkans have languished in a slow accession process for over a decade.

NATO enlargement has remained alive with the accession of Montenegro last year, but it has faced Russian military incursions in larger aspiring members Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). These have appeared to define the alliance’s limits, and the limits of American hegemony. 

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Both institutions appear to want to keep alive the momentum of expansion and integration as a way of reaffirming the Euro-Atlantic post-war order.

5. Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991. Why is the issue being decided now?

Athens and Skopje failed to find a solution in the 1990s because Greece did not want to accept a name that included the term Macedonia.

In 1995, after four years of failed diplomacy, the two sides settled for an Interim Accord whereby Greece recognised its northern neighbour as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

In the mid-2000s, the Greeks signalled their willingness to compromise on a composite name that included the word Macedonia, but the nationalist government of the VMRO-DPMNE under premier Nikola Gruevski in Skopje ruled this out.

It went a step further than its predecessors and laid claim to ancient Macedonian heritage in addition to the Macedonian name, putting up giant bronze statues of Alexander the Great and his father Philip in the capital.

The Gruevski government fell from power in December 2016, and Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats formed a government on May 31, 2017. They immediately sent foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov to Athens, to signal readiness to re-open talks with Greece.

6. If former Yugoslav Macedonia says yes, will Greece ratify the deal?

Greece is contractually obliged to ratify the agreement if its neighbour ratifies it and passes a number of constitutional amendments in parliament.

7. If there is a no vote, what will happen?

The Zaev government has suggested that it may try to ratify the agreement in parliament. It holds a majority of 68 in the 120-seat chamber, so it would need to attract 12 votes from the opposition to form a two-thirds majority.

Alternatively, it could declare a general election to increase its parliamentary majority, but that could be a gamble. 

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