A week after the referendum held in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to ratify the agreement with Greece over the name issue, both countries are regrouping, waiting for the next step.

The referendum was deemed a failure, given that just about 37 per cent of eligible voters (666,344 people) turned up at the polling station, well below the 50 per cent threshold needed to make the outcome valid.

The question posed to voters at the ballot box was: “Are you in favour of membership in NATO and European Union by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”

The opposition said the low turnout proved Macedonians had rejected the proposal to change the country’s constitutional name to ‘North Macedonia’.

“It is clear that the agreement with Greece has not received the green light from the people,” main nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party leader Hristiajn Mickoski told journalists.
“Macedonia has spoken today. Macedonia said the deal is off. We have seen a deeply unsuccessful referendum.”

This came as no surprise, as opponents of the change had urged followers not to vote, rather than vote no. What further complicates the issue is that those who did go to the polls overwhelmingly voted in favour of the proposal, with 94.18 per cent of votes being for and only 5.82 per cent against. The FYROM government is set to use this result as leverage.

Despite the low turnout, the country’s moderate prime minister Zoran Zaev has pledged to press on with a parliamentary vote to honour the agreement, signed by himself and his Greek counterapart, Alexis Tsipras. But this is not an easy task.

Greek protesters chant slogans against Greece’s name deal with neighboring FYROM, during a rally in the northern city of Thessaloniki, on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Photo: AP /Giannis Papanikos

THE ROLE OF THE ALBANIAN COMMUNITY

FYROM has to amend its constitution in order to change its name. That could only be done with a parliamentary vote. The referendum, as Zaev repeatedly stressed in his statement, was of advisory rather than legally-binding nature. Together with the Albanian parties, the Social Democrats hold 71 out of 120 seats in the parliament. That is nine seats short of the 2/3 majority required to change the constitution.

“In the coming week, we will assess if we can secure the necessary majority for the constitutional changes and, if not, we will call an early election,” Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska told Reuters.

“The downside is that the election would postpone adoption of the constitutional changes for 45 to 60 days,” she said.

If the snap election scenario becomes a reality, this would mean that the country would go to the polls by towards the end of November. For both the government and the opposition, the task at hand is to lure the votes of the Albanian community, which holds the country’s fate in its hands. Traditionally, FYROM’s Albanian citizens are strongly pro-NATO and EU. Turnout in some majority-Albanian locales, like the villages of Arachinovo and Saraj near the capital Skopje, was well above the national average.

It was the Albanian parties’ reluctance to engage with VMRO-DPMNE last year that handed power to Zaev’s Social Democrats. And while VMRO-DPMNE’s electorate appears to be intact, the party will have to win by a very high margin, to form government, something unlikely. What is even less likely is the potential for a coalition government of VMRO-DPNME and an Albanian partner.

The opponents of the referendum celebrate the small response of the voters on the referendum on the country’s name change in front of the Parliament building in Skopje. Photo: EPA/VALDRIN XHEMAJ

SUPPORT FROM THE WEST

Zaev may struggle to seek political support for the name change within FYROM, but he has the support of the west. European Council President Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that “an overwhelming majority of those voting” supported the agreement. They urged politicians to “seize this historic opportunity” and “decide on the way forward.”

From his part, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday also urged politicians to proceed with implementation of the deal through the country’s institutions.

“The fact that an overwhelming majority of those voting supported the Prespa agreement is important,” Guterres said in a statement.

Veteran UN negotiator Matthew Nimetz, who has been overseeing talks between Athens and Skopje on the name issue for almost 30 years, said the results of the referendum should be discussed again in Parliament.

“We must pay special attention to the people who voted and voted ‘yes’. Ninety per cent of the voters voted yes,” he told Greek TV station ANT1.

The European Union, NATO, and the United States have all called upon Skopje to move forward with the next steps required to enact the agreement.

Zaev has less sympathetic ears in Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry meanwhile noted that the low referendum turnout made its outcome null and void, adding that the conclusions of negotiations between Athens and Skopje could end up being discussed at the UN Security Council.

FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev adresses the media in front of a polling station after voting in a referendum on the country’s name change, at a polling station in the town of Strumica. Photo: EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI

THE GREEK GOVERNMENT’S REACTION

Back in Athens, the result was met with cautionary reactions, as the deal continues to fuel controversy, notably within the greek government itself.

The Greek foreign ministry said it respected the will of the people of the FYROM, making reference to a “contradictory” result in a referendum with only a “consultative” nature, whereas rightwing junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos, the defense minister, said the referendum has a binding effect and its result cancelled the agreement.

Although he still props up the mostly radical leftist government, Kammenos and his remaining party deputies oppose any use of the word “Macedonia” for the neighboring country’s name.

“A major portion of society in the neighbouring country backed the agreement. However, a significant portion viewed it with skepticism. Greece respects the decisions of the citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” the ministry announcement read, while adding, in a more internationalist tone, that “a climate of nationalism and suspicion, daily fake news and unbridled fanaticism do not allow, unfortunately, for a sober assessment of the major benefits of this agreement, and impede the necessary mutual understanding of peoples, and the development of the cooperation.”

Nevertheless, not everyone in the government was apparently dissatisfied by the result, with one of the two partners in the current “strange bedfellows” coalition breathing a sigh of relief on Sunday evening. The head of the small right-wing party propping up the mostly leftist government.

At the same time, Mr Kammenos, took to Twitter to opine that “with this turn out, based on Article 73, 74 of their (fYRoM) constitution, it is invalid, and 68 per cent of citizens (in FYROM) canceled the agreement.”

This is not a view espoused by Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who gave a television interview on Monday to defend the agreement, saying that “the referendum in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is not a legal prerequisite for the name deal signed with Greece in June to go through.”

Mr Kotzias was extremely harsh in his critique of FYROM’s President Gjorge Ivanov, the country’s most ardent opponent of the deal.

“George Ivanov, that terrible president of the neighbouring country […] said the referendum failed and it’s over,” Kotzias stated.

“He was elected president with 520,000 votes – the Yes vote in the referendum was 610,000. So why does the person elected with half a million believe himself legitimate but considers 610,000 votes invalid?”

Citizens gather to vote in a referendum on the country’s name change at a polling station in Skopje. Photo:  EPA/NAKE BATEV

Mr Kotzias also addressed the issue of division within the Greek cabinet. “We are a democratic government with a diversity of opinions,” he said. “Mr Kammenos has a different opinion on the agreement.”

“Foreign policy is conducted by the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs. No one else is responsible.”

The Greek FM expressed confidence that the agreement will be ratified in Skopje within the next few months and then put to lawmakers in Greece, “definitely by March”, predicting that it will pass by a comfortable majority “and more”.

The Prespes Agreement will be ratified by Greece’s Parliament by more than 151 MPs (out of 300 in the legislature), regardless of what Kammenos and his remaining AN.EL deputies vote.

Kammenos and Tsipras have agreed to revisit the issue in March, and possibly even after national elections which he said will take place later than May.