Explaining the Referendum in Macedonia and the Future Scenarios
Macedonians will vote this Sunday on a name change following Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s call for a consultative referendum to gauge public support. This June, the Macedonian and Greek governments signed the Prespa Agreement for resolution of the dispute, which requires Macedonia to change its constitutional name to the Republic of North Macedonia and Greece to end its veto for Skopje’s membership in North Atlantic Treaty Organiztion (NATO) and the European Union (EU). In July, NATO invited Macedonia to join the Alliance pending the successful implementation of the agreement with Greece, which requires changing Macedonia’s constitution to incorporate the new name. The Greek parliament also has to ratify the agreement.
How it Started
The name dispute between Skopje and Athens dates to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia. Greece objected to the name Macedonia, saying it implies territorial claims on the northern Greek region with the same name and claiming that the ancient Macedonian Kingdom is Hellenic, both historically and culturally. Reaching a compromise but not ending the dispute, in 1993 Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations under a provisional name, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. However the diplomatic standstill persisted and Macedonia’s path to join NATO and to start negotiations with the EU was blocked. Macedonia argued in the interim period that the constitutional name is tied to its identity, language, and culture, securing name recognition by more than 130 states.
Macedonia and Greece have the most favorable climate to resolve the historic name dispute now more than any time in the past 27 years. First, both governments are led by left-wing political parties, which are more open to negotiate on issues concerning history and identity. Second, both governments engaged and sought to assauge nationalist public attitudes in both countries. They showed strong commitment to directly negotiate in good faith and increase bilateral cooperation. Additionaly, the slow economic growth in Macedonia and the economic crisis in Greece in the past decade have shifted peoples focus from issues related to history and identity, to issues concerning their immediate political and economic well-being.
The United States, EU, and NATO are more committed than ever to resolve this issue and move affirmatively on Macedonia’s membership into the Euroatlantic institutions. Several High-level officials from Washington, Brussels and European capitals have visited Skopje to show support for the agreement. This support is in contrast to Moscow’s increased attempts to exert influence in Macedonia. Athens, Skopje, Brussels, and Washington have all spoken out about Kremlin intereference.
What to Expect on Sunday
The expectation is that the referendum outcome in Macedonia will be positive. This means that a significant majority of Macedonians will vote to support the name deal and advance Macedonia’s membership in Euroatlantic institutions. However, it will likely be difficult to achieve the fifty percent voter turnout necessary to certify its validity. There are several factors including, an outdated electoral lists (Macedonia had its latest census in 2002), the large number of Macedonians overseas without access to vote, and efforts by some in Macedonia to boycott the referendum. Since the referendum is of a consultative nature (not binding), the parliament of Macedonia will have the final say.
A positive outcome of the referendum will be crucial in sending a strong message to the members of the Macedonian parliament from the Conservative party, including opponents of the Prespa Agreements, to vote in favor of constitutional changes. If the current government is able to secure a two-thirds majority in the parliament, swaying twelve to fifteen parliamentarians from the opposition conservative party, Macedonia will be able to constitutionally change its name to North Macedonia. This is one of the most crucial steps in implementing the Prespa Agreement.
What to Expect after Sunday
There are two possible scenarios for Macedonia following the referendum outcome and the implementation process of the Prespa Agreement:
1. With the successful implementation of the agreement, Greece promises to unlock Macedonia’s process of accession to the EU, and its ability to open and close the 35 chapters of the negotiation process. The EU accession process works as both a carrot and stick. It provides a needed roadmap for Macedonia to adopt and implement the necessary reforms, including anti-corruption, justice, and rule of law measures, in various sectors and to synchronize its legal and regulatory systems with Brussels. Macedonia’s negotiation and membership in the EU would bring benefits to the country and its citizens, including additional access to EU funds, technical expertise, and markets. As Macedonia makes progress on their track, it will open new economic opportunities for growth and higher employment, helping to reverse a devastating trend of mass emigration and brain drain of Macedonians.
A positive NATO and EU scenario will also unify the Macedonian, Albanian, and other ethnic minorities to work toward a common future, while increasing regional cooperation with Macedonia’s neighbors, including Greece. However, EU membership is not guaranteed, and the Macedonian government and its citizens will need to be serious and committed for an extended period to implement the necessary reforms that are requirement for membership.
If the implementation of the agreement moves forward and Macedonia approves the constitutional changes in the fall, NATO will activate the membership ratification process with the 29 members of the Alliance. This will require a positive vote from the Greek parliament that Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece believes he is able to secure. Macedonia’s membership in NATO, after ratification by NATO member states, is critical to address a serious security vacuum present in the Balkans and growing Kremlin intereference. Macedonia’s membership is step forward to realizing a Westeran Balkans in a Europe that is whole, free and at peace. It will also impact the risks of future conflicts and instability, including taking the wind out of nationalist agendas for revisionism state borders in the region. NATO membership will also bring economic benefits to Macedonia by increasing its ability to project peace and stability — crucial for increased foreign investments.
2. The second scenario is that Macedonia or Greece fail to implement the Prespa Agreement. This means that either Macedonia is unable to secure two-third of its members of parliament to support the constitutional changes, or Greece fails to ratify Macedonia’s membership to NATO. Macedonia’s hopes for membership in NATO and the EU would be dashed. Macedonia would be challenged to build a economic, political and security future outside of Euroatlantic institutions — something that proved unsuccessful in the past 27 years. It would be very hard for Macedonia to become the Switzerland in the Balkans considering its rapidly declining demographics, poor infrastructure, scarcity of natural resources, and limited access to markets.
This outcome would be destabilizing for Macedonia and the region. It could lead to further dissatisfaction and increased tensions of the Albanian minority in Macedonia, which is less willing to trade its Euroatlantic future over saving the current constitutional name of the country. A failure to resolve the name issue will most likely have negative impact on the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations, and further discourage Georgia and Ukraine to count on a future membership to NATO and EU. In addition, Macedonia outside of NATO and the EU will open the door to increased Russian involvement in the country and the region.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.