Macedonian name referendum has much wider implications

macedonia_greece_namedealThere’s an important referendum going on in Europe. One that has the potential to end a 27 year dispute and lead to the expansion of both NATO and the EU. And it’s all about a name.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990’s the main focus was quite naturally on the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. Later the West watched and acted as Kosovo broke away from Serbia. But in the background there was a dispute over the name of the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. The residents of the new country refer to themselves as Macedonians and the language they speak is called Macedonian as well. But Greece sees this name as a claim on the ancient Greek province of Macedonia. The Greek objection matters, despite a ruling against them by the International Court of Justice in 2011. Because Greece can and has vetoed the application by their neighbour to the north to join the EU and NATO.

A quarter of a century ago, the UN appointed a special negotiator. Matthew Nimetz has been working on this issue ever since. Finally, on June 17th this year, there was a press conference to announce that a deal had been done. The country that has been very awkwardly known for 25 years as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ would become the Republic of North Macedonia.

Such a change cannot happen without public approval however. The next step is a referendum to be held on September 30th.

The logjam appears to have been broken with the advent of a new Prime Minister in Skopje. Zoran Zaev and the Social Democrats took power from Nikola Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE. Gruevski’s stance was more nationalistic and his antiquization programme saw grand new buildings constructed in the classical style across Skopke and the renaming of the international airport after Alexander of Macedon – all things that would wind Greece up.

Zaev was determined to get the matter dealt with and agreed the deal which would see the name ‘The Republic of North Macedonia’ used both internally and internationally. In return, the Greeks agreed to accept that the local language will continue to be known as Macedonian and agreed to push for Macedonia to gain speedy access to both the EU and NATO.

(Incidentally, the breaking the logjam on Macedonian accession to the EU is also likely to clear the way for other countries in the Western Balkans to join)

The referendum is not a foregone conclusion, however. Zaev and the Social Democrats are campaigning heavily in favour of the deal. They also have the support of foreign leaders, with Angela Merkel due to visit soon as well as her Austrian fellow Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. A none too subtle push from the West in favour of a Yes vote. The question on the ballot paper doesn’t even refer to the name issue. It asks:

“Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

It seems that the Yes campaigning is winning at the moment with an IRI poll showing 49%-22% support for Yes (with 13% undecided and 16% not voting). Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are opposed to the deal but their opposition lost some credibility when papers from 2008 negotiations emerged via Wikileaks showing that the then government had made a very similar proposal but been rebuffed by Greece. But referendums can be tricky beasts. A significant constituency exists in the country that believes that Macedonia could hold out for a better deal in the future. And whilst regular elections are very much controlled by the political parties, a referendum tends to bring all sorts of different campaign groups out of the woodwork. The influence that these might have could prove crucial as the campaign grinds on to September 30th.

If the referendum passes successfully, that is not the end of the matter. A two thirds vote of the Parliament in Skopje is needed to make it binding. The paving legislation was agreed by the Sobranie but this new vote will need the support of at least some opposition members and could prove to be a tougher battle than the referendum itself.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Matthew Nimetz will be retiring. His parting words asking local politicians to avoid making the best the enemy of the good may well not be heeded by the opposition immediately, but if the majority of the Macedonian public back the proposal then it may prove difficult to resist.