Macedonia leader vows to press on with name change despite referendum failure

02 October, 2018, 22:48 | Author: Emmett Rice
  • Macedonia vote brings back Cold War fears

Two days before a crucial referendum that could open the doors of Macedonia to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and European Union membership, an official from Skopje speaking in Brussels on Friday (28 September) made it clear that the authorities will declare the result as legitimate even in case of a low turnout. While the Macedonian government plans to call any significant majority in favor of the deal a success, the right-wing opposition may question the vote's credibility if turnout is below 50 percent.

The will of the majority must now be confirmed by the parliament, Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a statement after polls closed.

Sunday's results gave them ammunition to use against Zaev - either by forcing a new vote, or by demanding political concessions from him in exchange for their willingness to make the constitutional changes. Mattis said there was "no doubt" that Moscow had funded groups inside Macedonia to campaign against the name change.

"The people made a great choice and said "yes" to our future. It is time for lawmakers to follow the voice of the people and to provide support", Zaev told press on Sunday.

As elsewhere in Europe, Russia's influence campaign in Macedonia exploited and complemented rightwing nationalist-populist narratives based on notions of identity, race and the perceived threat of an overbearing EU.

Supporters of the deal, led by Zaev, have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country's future prosperity, the key to its ability to join North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and, eventually, the EU.

"Even if all the voters that participated in the parliamentary election in 2016 but stayed home yesterday had voted "No", the overall result would still have been positive".

President Gjorge Ivanov and opposition members of parliament led a boycott of the name change, calling such a move a "criminal act". He pledged to hold a vote in parliament on the name change, and call an early election if lawmakers failed to enact it.

"If the deal is damaging for Greece, how can it also be damaging for FYROM and for the opposite to apply?" he said.

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After decades of stalled United Nations -mediated talks, changes in the Macedonian government in 2017 rekindled hopes that a solution could be found. Macedonian nationalists began producing maps including Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city.

The animosity deepened when Macedonia's former premier Nikola Gruevski went on a construction spree in the capital Skopje, erecting massive statues of Alexander the Great - a hero both countries claim as their own - and plastering government buildings in Hellenic-inspired facades.

The referendum has stirred strong interest in the West, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis among top foreign officials heading to Skopje recently to urge its people to vote "Yes".

In Macedonia, those opposing the deal have called for a boycott of Sunday's referendum. Nikola Gruevski, a conservative prime minister who was in power from 2006-16, went on a building spree, erecting statues of ancient Greeks in the center of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and naming the country's main highway and global airport after Alexander the Great.

"I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines", European Union enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement.

"I welcome the yes vote", Mr Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

She urged Macedonian politicians "to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions".

The deal would "contribute to regional stability, security, and prosperity", it added, among concerns that if people in the Western Balkans lost hope in European Union enlargement prospects, it could open up a hornet's nest of old hostilities - just two decades after the last Balkan wars.

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