Macedonia and allies back name deal with Greece despite vote failure
Skopje threatens snap elections if nationalists block pact and steps towards EU and Nato
Protesters in Skopje boycott a referendum on changing Macedonia’s name to pave way for it to join Nato and the EU. Photograph: Marko Djurica
Macedonia’s government has pledged to press ahead with a controversial deal with Greece to change its name and boost its hopes of joining the European Union and Nato, despite the failure of a referendum on the historic pact.
In Sunday’s ballot, 91 per cent of voters backed the deal and the prospect of eventual EU and Nato membership, but only 37 per cent of those registered went to the polls – far short of the 50 per cent required for the referendum to be legally valid.
The poll was only consultative, not binding, however, and so with support from western powers Macedonian premier Zoran Zaev wants to hold a final ballot on the deal in parliament, while threatening to call snap elections if nationalist deputies try to kill the agreement.
The pact signed in June would see Macedonia renamed North Macedonia in exchange for Greece lifting its veto on the ex-Yugoslav republic’s bid to join the EU and Nato.
The dispute has paralysed relations between the Balkan states since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, with Athens insisting that its neighbour’s use of the same name as a province of northern Greece implies a territorial claim on the area and the glittering legacy of its ancient ruler, Alexander the Great.
“Certainly there is a chance of elections,” Mr Zaev said on Monday. “The law and the constitution provide for those next steps. But I hope we will manage to reach an agreement. Processes cannot be frozen and stand still, things must move forward.”
Deputy premier Bujar Osmani insisted the overwhelming Yes vote – despite poor turnout – “gives institutions full legitimacy to continue with the implementation” of the deal, as quoted by Macedonia’s MIA news agency.
Defence minister Radmila Sekerinska said: “Deputies have no other option than following the majority vote in order to speed up the country’s Nato and EU membership.”
“This is a time when Macedonia needs unity. On one hand we have Macedonia in the EU and Nato, on the other we have isolation and uncertainty,” she added.
Senior EU and US officials echoed government calls for the deal to proceed, even as Macedonia’s nationalist VMRO-DPMNE opposition party declared the agreement as good as dead after the failed referendum.
“The citizens said a loud No to the agreement with Greece . . . The citizens clearly sent a message that Zaev has no legitimacy to push through this deal,” VMRO-DPMNE said in a statement on Monday.
Analysts believe nationalist deputies may ultimately wave through the agreement rather than face probable defeat in snap elections, however.
“I want us to join the EU and Nato but under our own name, the Republic of Macedonia,” said Slava Trajkovski (28), a computer programmer in the capital, Skopje. “Would other countries just give up their name for something that is not even guaranteed?”
“Joining the EU and Nato is really important for us and I don’t really mind changing our name,” said Veronika (27), a broker in Skopje.
“But I didn’t vote yesterday. My friends and I were too busy at a wedding,” she added, reflecting widespread apathy towards the referendum.