On the last day of September citizens of Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM) went to the polls to decide whether they want to change their state’s name to “North Macedonia” in order to end a long running dispute with Greece. The Yes camp won by 94% of the vote, but the participation was extremely low – Macedonia State Electoral Commission announced that the turnout stood at 36%. 661,000 people voted, well below the necessary threshold of 903,000 votes needed for the referendum to succeed. Europa United contributor Milen Marinov examines the outcome and what the future holds for the Balkans.

Earlier this year Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras on a solution to ending a long-running name row between the two neighbours.”We were discussing many options and we agreed on one that is acceptable for both sides”, Zaev told reporters after meeting Tsipras at a summit of Balkan and European Union leaders in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. The problem with Macedonia’s name is that in Greece there is a province with the same name. Athens also accuses Skopje of stealing history, because they consider Macedonians to be themselves and rightful heirs of Alexander the Great’s people from Antiquity. But Ancient Macedonians were close to the Ancient Greeks’ tribe and modern Macedonians are Slavic, close to Bulgarians and Serbians.


Zoran ZaevAll of this has provided fuel for Russian propaganda media to say that in fact the people of Macedonia, a Slavic and predominantly Christian Orthodox country, are against the European Union and NATO membership. But what really happened last Sunday?

This name dispute is the major obstacle on Macedonia’s journey towards EU and NATO membership, but not the only one.  This small Balkan country, like many others in the region, was part of the former state of Yugoslavia. It is important to be noticed that Macedonia was the only country that got out of this federal communist state absolutely peacefully, without any conflicts, and also managed to maintain good relationships with Belgrade. But in those times, the early 90’s, Bulgaria was the first country that recognised Macedonia as an independent state, and advocated for Macedonian sovereignty.

Like all Balkan countries, Macedonia is scene of fight between two main geopolitical powers – Russia and western Europe, mainly the EU and NATO. Added to this are two main political flows in Macedonian politics: pro-Russian, supported by Serbia, and pro-western, supported by Bulgaria. There is also a “third side”, and this is the Albanian minority, which in Macedonia comprises 25% of the population. Some Macedonian Albanian political movements fight for Islamic conservatism, Albanian nationalism and pull the rope towards closer ties with Turkey and the Arab world.

So, what really happened in Macedonia on Sunday? Out of 1,800,000 people with rights to vote, only 600,000 went to the polls. They needed to answer the question “Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”, and 605,016 Macedonians said “Yes”. Only 37,312 voters expressed their opposition to the agreement, signed at Lake Prespa, a body of water which is divided among Macedonia, Greece and Albania. The main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE threatened to boycott the referendum and considers the deal with Greece to be an act of treason. However, in early September, only weeks before the referendum, Hristijan Mickoski, the party president came out with a statement that encourages citizens to vote, as they feel it is right for their country’s future.

After the low activity became clear, many pro-Russian voices proclaimed that “Western ideas” in Macedonia had failed. In Russian the authoritative Russian newspaper Rosijskaya gazeta accused the EU of “brainwashing” and said that Prime Minister Zaev “too quickly announced victory”.  More reactionary Russian media like Voennoe obozrenie, Lenta and Regnum described the referendum as a “total failure”.

In Greece the nationalists from the right wing party Golden Dawn and the opposition New Democracy party expressed their happiness about this fact. In its announcement New Democracy reiterated that the Prespa deal was “nationally harmful” for the Greeks. But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras congratulated counterpart Zoran Zaev for his “determination and bravery” to continue the ratification process and table the deal in parliament for approval, despite the successful boycott supported by the opposition.

From Brussels, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission Federica Mogherini in a joint statement with European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations commissioner Johannes Hahn also expressed their support for Zaev’s actions.

“This is a historic opportunity not only for reconciliation in the region, but also for decisively moving the country forward on its European Union path. It is for all political and institutional actors now to act within their constitutional responsibilities beyond party political lines. The European Union will continue to fully support and accompany the country, its institutions and all its citizens”, Mogherini and Hahn said.

Low activity in this referendum doesn’t mean failure of the European idea. On contrary, Macedonians are not stupid. They know perfectly well that EU membership is the only way towards economic prosperity and stability for the countries of the region and that the EU is the main trade partner of Macedonia, which means that many Macedonians often apply for Bulgarian documents which allow them to work in EU. Western investments are crucial for Macedonian economy.

But people are tired. No matter who is in power, whether it be Zoran Zaev’s SDSM or Hristijan Micovski’s VMRO-DPMNE, they continue to suffer poverty. Corruption rate is also high, along with crime, and nepotism is everywhere on all levels. So Macedonians are really fed up and they don’t wish to listen about politics, perspectives and projects any more. They just want to live their lives in peace like normal people. That is why referendum turnout was so low. It’s a tendency in all of the region – for example activity in Bulgaria’s last elections for parliament was 51%, while in Serbia it was 50%. Add in Macedonia at 66% and Romania which barely reached 40%, a pattern is clear to see and it shows that a lot of people don’t wish to vote. But it should be the responsibility of the politicians to encourage them and to explain to them why this is important and it is also necessary and should be vigorously underlined that people who express their right to vote always support European way – their path to peace and stability.


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Milen Marinov
Bulgarian journalist and devoted to the European cause.

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