Macedonia PM defies low turnout to push name change
SKOPJE, Oct 1, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Macedonia’s government vowed Monday to
push ahead with changing the country’s name to appease Greece and build ties
with the West, but opponents said low turnout in a referendum on the move
made it illegitimate.
Premier Zoran Zaev wants to rename the Balkan state North Macedonia to end
a long-running row with Greece and build ties with the West.
More than 90 percent of those who voted supported the name-change in
Sunday’s referendum, but only a third of the electorate turned out.
“More than 90 percent of the total votes are ‘yes’, so now it is
parliament’s turn to confirm the will of the majority,” Zaev told AFP late
But the head of the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, Hristijan
Mickoski, pointed to the low turnout, saying the government had “lost its
– ‘Will of the people’ –
Through the name change, Zaev aims to open a path to integration with the
West by settling the decades-long dispute with Greece.
Greece has its own northern province named Macedonia and has accused its
northern neighbour of territorial ambitions.
Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras agreed in June on the name
In return for the new name, Athens would drop its long-standing objections
to the Balkan country joining the European Union and NATO.
Zaev now needs two-thirds of MPs to ratify the deal.
He has support from ethnic Albanian groups in his coalition but would also
need to win over opposition lawmakers.
Mickoski said voters had responded to calls to boycott the referendum.
He called on the government to “respect the will of the people”.
Some 1.8 million voters are registered in Macedonia, a country of some 2.1
French Balkans specialist Loic Tregoures judged that the electoral roll was
not up to date.
Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska said Monday that the government would
give itself a week to rally support from opposition deputies.
“If not, then we will organise early parliamentary elections,” she told a
– New elections? –
For opponents, the vote was invalid under a constitutional provision
requiring a 50 percent turnout.
But Zaev insisted that because the referendum was only consultative a 50
percent turnout was not needed.
Zaev’s ruling coalition has 69 MPs in the 120-strong assembly.
To gather the required two-thirds majority Zaev needs to convince at least
11 MPs from the opposition to back the move.
– Step towards EU –
The EU on Monday hailed the vote as a step towards joining the bloc.
“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,” EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and enlargement commissioner
Johannes Hahn said in a statement.
Western powers have told Macedonia that if they want to join EU and NATO
there is no plan B.
“NATO’s door is open, but all national procedures have to be completed,”
the military alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg tweeted.
Reactions to the vote were mixed in Greece, where the government has faced
pressure from nationalists over the deal.
Tsipras’s coalition partner Panos Kammenos, head of the nationalist
Independent Greeks party, has threatened to defect from the government over
the Macedonia deal.
The Greek parliament must also ratify the agreement.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Greece was willing
to wait for the necessary Macedonian constitutional reform to implement the
“We understand there may be a small delay… Whether (the constitution is
revised) in January, February or March is not a major issue,” he said.
“It would be a shame to have this very important opportunity to resolve an
issue troubling the Balkans for nearly 30 years go to waste.”