SKOPJE – Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has vowed to follow through with a change to the Balkan nation’s name as part of a deal to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece after a September 30 referendum on the move failed to secure a turnout of 50 percent, required to make the nonbinding vote valid.
Only 36.9 percent of the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters cast ballots in the referendum as election officials continued to tally results on October 1.
With more than 98.6 percent of polling stations reporting, it was clear the legal threshold to make the vote valid would not be reached.
But with results also showing resounding support of 91.5 percent among those who did vote, a defiant Zaev said he “will do everything” to forge ahead with changing the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, as a way to resolve the dispute with Greece and clear the way for Macedonia’s possible entrance into NATO and the European Union.
“Let’s not play games,” he said late on September 30.
“Let’s not play with our future. This issue is bigger than anything else, bigger than party interests. We have an obligation to make Macedonia a better place, otherwise the option that remains is early parliamentary elections right away," he added.
President Gjorge Ivanov and opposition members of parliament led a boycott of the name change, calling such a move a “criminal act.”
Given the success of efforts to suppress turnout, analysts say Zaev faces a difficult to muster enough support in parliament to push his agenda through.
Officials in Zaev's government have said they have 71 parliamentary deputies ready to approve a constitutional amendment accepting the name change, short of the two-thirds majority, or 80 votes in parliament, needed to amend the constitution.
Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said that while the referendum was an obvious “failure and the result disappointing,” a “credible argument” could be made that the deal is supported by a majority since the yes vote was so high and voter turnout is usually “well below” 70 percent in Macedonia.
“Many more obstacles to overcome,” Bieber added in a message on Twitter.
Christian Mickoski, the leader of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said the strongest message in the referendum was sent by those who boycotted or voted against the deal with Greece.
“The fact is that the name agreement did not get the green light, but a stop [sign] from the people,” Mickoski said.
Greece noted the "contradictory" results from the vote and said its outcome will require careful moves to "preserve the positive potential" of the deal between Athens and Skopje.
"The climate of nationalism and suspicion, daily fake news, and extreme fanaticism unfortunately do not allow a sober assessment of the great benefits of the agreement," the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said there was “broad support” for the agreement with Greece. Hahn said he expects “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 U.S. State Department said it welcomed the results and that it “strongly supports” the full implementation of the accord between Macedonia and Greece, “which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, and prosperity.”
The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.
Greece says the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece, an EU and NATO member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bids to join the two organizations.
In June, Athens and Skopje hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the new name.
Macedonia’s economy is sputtering after a two-year financial crisis that pushed unemployment above 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the Balkans, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.
Analysts say further integrating Western Balkan countries such as Macedonia into European and transatlantic structures is the best way to ensure the stability and development of a region still healing from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.