July 16, 2020 | News | No Comments
Macedonians head to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to change the country’s name to North Macedonia.
If a majority vote in favour of the name change, neighbouring Greece has promised to lift its veto on the tiny Balkan nation joining Nato and the EU.
Macedonia’s long-standing desire to keep its name has been blocked by Athens ever since the Balkan country declared independence from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
The Greeks are fiercely protective of their own region of the same name and resent what they regard as the Macedonians’ appropriation of Hellenistic culture.
Despite the bad blood between the neighbours, a majority of Macedonians seem to be leaning towards the yes vote.
It is a chance to ditch the long-winded and inelegant name they have been saddled with for the last 27 years – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short.
“There are no jobs for young people here. My son has no prospects. We have big economic problems. So I thinking joining the EU and Nato will offer us a better future,” Tiho, a 56-year-old taxi driver in the capital, said.
But others deeply resent having to add a geographical qualifier to their country’s name, saying that the title North Macedonia is a humiliation and diminishes the country on the world stage.
In a concession from Athens, the language of the country will officially be recognised as Macedonian and citizens’ nationality will be Macedonian.
“No one wants to change the name – why would you?” said Simonida Kacarska, the director of the European Policy Institute, a think tank in Skopje.
“But the issue has been going on for 27 years and people are sick of it. This is a chance to resolve it. We are making a compromise.”
The question that will be put to voters in the referendum is: "Are you in favour of membership in the European Union and NATO by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?"
The break in the impasse between the two countries came in June, after months of talks between Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian prime minister, and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras.
Both leaders have stuck their necks out politically and face trenchant opposition from domestic critics.
In Macedonia, conservative opposition parties and nationalist groups have called for a boycott of the referendum.
“It’s emotional. This is a country whose language and identity have been contested by its neighbours,” said Prof Kacarska, who gained her PhD at Leeds University.
“Part of the population is concerned that the change of name will change certain identity markers, even though our nationality and language will be recognised as Macedonian.
“The emotional attachment to the issue on both sides is incredible. It is still very high and will be for some time.”
Such is the historical animosity between Macedonia and its larger neighbours – Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece – that they are known as “the four wolves”.
Polling stations are open until 7pm local time, with the result expected to be known late on Sunday evening.
Nikola Dimitrov, the foreign minister, voted in the centre of the capital, describing the referendum as a “historic cross-roads” and the potential start of a new chapter for the country.
“I hope that this will be a smooth democratic process and that people will make the choice to move forward finally.
“This is a big, big day for Macedonia and for our friendship with Greece and our other neighbours. I’m excited. It’s also my birthday, so I hope there is an omen in that too.”
A key issue is turnout – if it is less than 50 per cent then the referendum result may be seen to lack legitimacy.
Mr Zaev, the prime minister, has said that if the no vote wins, he will resign.
If the yes vote wins, Skopje will have to make changes to its constitution and then put the deal to parliament for approval.
It would also have to be ratified by the Greek parliament, where Mr Tsipras’s coalition partners have said they will vote against it.
It is not clear if the prime minister will be able to gather enough votes from other parties to have the accord accepted.