The state of Macedonia’s name is up in the air following an unsuccessful referendum to change the nation’s official name to “Republic of North Macedonia”. The referendum, which was held on Sunday, Sept. 30, saw 91% of voters agreeing with the name change. Unfortunately, only 36.9% of eligible voters participated, which was well short of the needed 50% to make the referendum legal. Thus, the vote is essentially thrown out and legislators are looking at other options.
Changing the nation’s name would be a key step forward in the process of becoming a member of the EU and NATO. Acceptance into these organizations is currently blocked by Greece, which has objected to the use of the name “Macedonia” since the eponymous nation gained independence from the former nation of Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece has a region also named Macedonia, and they believe the use of the name implies territorial aspirations for this region. Thus, Greece has pushed for a name change, and Macedonia’s government has been trying to reach a deal to allow their nation to progress into the EU and NATO, which would likely be beneficial for the nation’s economy and security.
That deal finally came when Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras officially agreed on the name change back in June. On Sunday, before the vote occurred, Zaev addressed the nation: “I, the opposition, and all citizens know that there would not be a better agreement with Greece. There is no alternative to the EU, NATO membership. Let’s not play with our future and the future of our Macedonia,” he argued.
Despite his urging, the opposition remained steadfast against the referendum. Macedonia President Gjorge Ivanov came out urging voters to boycott the referendum, claiming it would be “historical suicide,” while speaking to the UN General Assembly. Ivanov added, “Voting in a referendum is a right, not an obligation,” and encouraged voters to stay at home. This no doubt swayed some Macedonians into abstaining from the vote.
Moving forward, the next move Prime Minister Zoran Zaev hopes to make is to pass the name change within Parliament, which will not be an easy task. The name change needs two-thirds majority to go through, and as Politico reported, 71 MPs currently support the legislation, out of a 120-member chamber, so they would need to secure nine other votes for it to pass. The opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, has been openly critical of the deal reached with Greece. The party is known for its nationalist nature, so legislation that would change Macedonia’s name and, in their view, portray the nation bowing to Greece’s will, is not something they will support easily. Despite this uphill battle, Zaev has threatened to hold a snap election if the opposition does not pass the change, even though the majority coalition was sworn in only 16 months ago.
Yet, even if Macedonia’s Parliament is successful in changing the nation’s name, the path into the EU is still a difficult one. Following the potential name change, admittance into NATO would be straightforward and quick, but due to the current state of Macedonia’s economy, becoming an EU member nation is a trickier process. As Politico notes, many citizens have left the nation, searching for better opportunities elsewhere, with record unemployment rates likely to blame. In addition, Macedonia is ridden with political corruption and cronyism, which definitely does not help its case. Changing the nation’s name may only be a first step in solving its numerous issues, if Zaev and the majority can even get that to happen. Hopefully the Parliament will get things worked out, because joining NATO would be vastly beneficial for the nation’s security and an EU membership could very well give Macedonia’s economy that bump it so desperately needs. As the Guardian points out, joining the EU and NATO is seen as favorable by many Macedonians, according to a variety of polls, so it’s now a waiting game to see if Parliament can work through their differences to reach the end goal.