Macedonia referendum: Low turnout in name change vote

Voters in Tetovo, Macedonia, 30 SeptemberImage copyright

Turnout has been low in the referendum held in Macedonia on whether to change its name to North Macedonia to end a long-running dispute with Greece.

Shortly before polls ended, the electoral authorities said only over a third of Macedonians had voted, short of the 50% needed for it to be valid.

Athens believes its northern neighbour’s name implies a territorial claim on the Greek region of Macedonia.

Greece had blocked Macedonia’s EU and Nato membership bids.

Some nationalists – including the country’s president – had urged a boycott of Sunday’s referendum.

Despite the poor turnout, early results showed over 90% of voters were in favour of the name change.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged parliament to “confirm the will of the majority”, according to AFP. He has threatened to call early elections if it does not.

“If, as we all expect, we truly have a big visible, tangible majority for [voting in favour], out of those who voted, then the future is clear.

“The vote of the MPs in parliament must resolutely be a vote for a responsible acceleration of the processes towards Nato and the European Union.”

Full results are expected later on Sunday.

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What were Macedonians asked?

“Are you in favour of European Union and Nato membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

That agreement is on the name North Macedonia.

Why the change of name?

Macedonia declared independence during the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. But Greece objected to its new neighbour’s name.

The dispute harks back to ancient history, because both present-day Macedonia and northern Greece were part of a Roman province called Macedonia. And both claim the heritage of Alexander the Great two centuries earlier.

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Greece’s objections forced the UN to refer to the new country as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

Athens also vetoed Macedonia’s attempt to join Nato in 2008 – and squashed its EU membership ambitions.

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A nationalistic 2014 project led to a frenzy of new building, with statues appearing across Skopje

What is the proposed solution?

The addition of one word to Macedonia’s constitutional name: North.

Since 1991, many suggestions have been proposed, then rejected. But last year’s change of government in Macedonia finally brought the start of serious negotiations.

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Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is pushing a Yes vote for a future in the EU and Nato

“Our citizens were sick of that problem,” says Macedonia’s information minister, Damjan Manchevski. “It had been weighing on Macedonia for such a long period of time and not letting us advance.”

What’s in it for Macedonia?

Greece will end its veto on Macedonia’s accession to Nato and the EU.

“We don’t change our name because we want to do it,” Mr Zaev told the BBC. “We do it because of our future in the EU and Nato. Everyone is aware why we do it.”

That applies particularly to Macedonia’s younger citizens.

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These young voters are backing a Yes vote, holding up placards for a “European Macedonia”

“Young people in Macedonia are a quarter of the population – and they’re one of the largest marginalised groups,” says Dona Kosturanova of the Youth Educational Forum.

“They’re struggling with poor education, high unemployment and few opportunities for prosperity. They’re desperate to see advancement towards a prosperous environment.”

What are objections?

Opponents say the country has been bullied by Greece and the EU, pointing to the fact that top European politicians urged the voters to back the change.

The leader of the main opposition party, Hristijan Mickoski, was quoted as saying that the proposed deal “will humiliate Macedonia”.

President Gjorge Ivanov was among those who said they would be boycotting the vote. He described the proposed deal as “historical suicide”.

Meanwhile, Russia has been accused of fomenting opposition to the name change to stop Macedonia drifting into the West’s orbit. Moscow denies the claim.

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Classmates mourn boy shot dead by Israeli troops in Gaza borderPeople wave Macedonian flags during a protest in front of the Government building in Skopje on June 2, 2018.