Macedonian referendum, 2018
|Macedonian referendum, 2018|
|Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?|
|This article is part of a series on the|
politics and government of
the Republic of Macedonia
A referendum was held in the Republic of Macedonia on 30 September 2018, with voters asked whether they support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement struck between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece in June 2018. It is related to the 27-year long dispute between Republic of Macedonia and Greece over the former's name, an issue which has prevented the accession of Macedonia to the European Union and NATO. The government had carried out a social media campaign about the issue of the referendum. The proposal ultimately failed on a constitutional ground because the turnout of eligible voters was not over 50 percent, according to the election commission. This led the opposition to claim victory, while the government did as well by arguing that the result being non-binding meant the turnout requirement was pointless in the first place. Being non-binding, as well as including constitutional changes, its result will still need to be approved by two-thirds of parliament. Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has vowed to push forward with the changes in parliament.
Following Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, successive Greek governments have claimed that the country's name implied territorial claims on Greek Macedonia and have objected to the use of "Macedonia" by the new state. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), while most countries have recognised the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name.
Repeated attempts at negotiation for a composite name failed for 27 years. However, in 2018, high-level contacts between the governments of the two countries intensified, with the Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani visiting Athens for the name talks on 9 January, and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev meeting with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland on 24 January. In the Davos meeting, the first of its kind in seven years, there appeared to be some resolution between the two leaders to end the naming dispute and to improve the relations between the two countries. Zaev subsequently agreed to take initiatives that would soothe Greek concerns over antiquisation policies, while Tsipras agreed to consent to Macedonia's bid to join regional initiatives or agreements.
On 12 June 2018, Tsipras announced that he had reached an agreement with Zaev "which covers all the preconditions set by the Greek side". The proposal would result in the Republic of Macedonia being renamed the Republic of North Macedonia (Macedonian: Република Северна Македонија, translit. Republika Severna Makedonija), with the new name being used for all purposes. Zaev announced that the deal includes recognition of the Macedonian language in the United Nations and that the citizens of the country will be called, as before, Macedonians. However, there would also be an explicit clarification that the citizens of the country are not related to the ancient Macedonians. "The agreement once and for always confirms and strengthens the Macedonian ethnic and cultural identity, the Macedonian language, the Macedonian nationality. It guarantees the security of the country and provides a secure future for the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia", Zaev said. These changes were to be put to a referendum for citizens of the Republic of Macedonia in September 2018. In addition to changing the name of the country, the referendum would remove references to the "Macedonian people" from the constitution which imply an ancient heritage. Additionally, the agreement stipulates the removal of the Vergina Sun from public use in the Republic of Macedonia and the formation of a committee for the review of school textbooks and maps in both countries for the removal of irredentist content and to align them with UNESCO and Council of Europe's standards. The agreement was signed at Lake Prespa, a body of water which is divided among Macedonia, Greece and Albania.
Parliament paved the way for the referendum by ratifying the agreement for a second time in early July. After a month long delay by the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE to slow down the referendum preparation by not appointing members to the State Election Commission, the parliament finally agreed as of the end of July on a new composition.
The text of the question put to voters was:
Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and the government coalition started an online campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum. Many high-ranked officials and EU leaders expressed their support for the "Yes" option as it would bring Macedonia closer to EU and NATO. Among those who visited the country in support of the referendum are Angela Merkel and Sebastian Kurz, Chancellors of Germany and Austria respectively, as well as Jim Mattis, the US Defense Secretary, and Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, who encouraged the people of Macedonia to vote in favor of the new name. The Albanian president Ilir Meta, prime minister Edi Rama and foreign minister Ditmir Bushati also urged Albanians in Macedonia to support the deal and vote yes in the referendum. In Macedonia, Albanian political parties and their leaders Ali Ahmeti (DUI), Menduh Thaçi (DPA), Bilall Kasami (Besa Movement) and Ziadin Sela (Alliance for Albanians) supported the yes vote.
The main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE has threatened to boycott the referendum and considers the deal with Greece to be an act of treason. In early September, the party's president Hristijan Mickoski came out with a statement encouraging citizens to vote as they feel it is right for their country's future, and that the party would respect different opinions. The party did not participate in the referendum campaign, while various high ranking party members voiced their support for the boycott or the yes side. In early September, a cable from the US embassy in the Republic of Macedonia revealed by WikiLeaks showed that the 2008 VMRO-DPMNE government was willing to accept the name Republic of Northern Macedonia, for international and bilateral use only, provided it included the recognition of the Macedonian language and nationality. That proposal was rejected by Greece. The information has been denied by media close to the party, which have stated that VMRO-DPMNE was only willing to accept changing the FYROM reference to Northern Macedonia, while keeping the constitutional name the same. On 23 September, Macedonia's President Gorge Ivanov, who was elected as a candidate of the VMRO-DPMNE, decried the agreement and called on his compatriots to boycott the vote. Various other small anti-Western organizations[which?] with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian orientations have also organized protests against the name change.
Various diplomats and analysts, including U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have accused Russia of engaging in a campaign to undermine the referendum. Russia is opposed to any additional countries joining NATO or the European Union. Thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts urged Macedonians to boycott the vote. Some Facebook postings asked "are you going to let Albanians change your name?", attempting to exploit ethnic divisions in the country. The "no" lobby banked on a boycott that could render the referendum result meaningless. Two Russian diplomats were expelled from Greece due to accusations of attempting to undermine relations with Macedonia, and a year earlier Russian citizens were arrested related to a failed coup in Montenegro attempting to prevent that country from joining NATO.
|Date(s) conducted||Yes||No||Undecided||Will not vote||Error margin||Sample||Conducted by||Method|
|28 June – 15 July 2018||49%||22%||13%||16%||± 3.0%||1100 respondents aged 18 and over||IRI||Face-to-face interviews|
|24 July – 1 August 2018||41.5%||35.1%||9.2%||12.4%||± 3.1%||1026 likely voters||MCIC||Computer-assisted telephone interview|
Albanians from Macedonia residing in Western Europe ignored voting in the referendum.
Western leaders welcomed the result as positive, despite the low turnout. The European Union's Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, called the “yes” vote "very significant" and urged Macedonia's political leaders to "respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility". NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, in his post on Twitter described the referendum as a "historic opportunity", while reaffirming that "NATO’s door is open" for Macedonia. The United States also welcomed the outcome, with the State Department urging Macedonian lawmakers "to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity" in implementing the Prespa Agreement, which could enable Macedonia to become "a full participant in Western institutions". Greece's Foreign Ministry welcomed the positive result, but described it as "contradictory" to the low vote turnout, and the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras phoned his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev right after the referendum to congratulate him for the positive outcome.
Russia, a staunch opponent of Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, on the other hand, hinted that it could veto the Prespa Agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece, by bringing it to the United Nations Security Council. Macedonia dismissed Moscow's threats by stating that bilateral agreements can not be dependent on the Security Council.
On 19 October 2018, Macedonia’s parliament voted to start the process of renaming the country Republic of North Macedonia. A total of 80 deputies in the 120-seat parliament voted in favour of the renaming proposal—just reaching the two-thirds majority needed to enact constitutional changes, a quorum only needing to be met, and no more.
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