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IRI Expert in The American Interest: Why the Macedonian Referendum Matters

September 28, 2018

A Furious Fight Behind the Scenes

The American Interest 

By Paul McCarthy 

omorrow, Macedonians will vote in a historic referendum that could determine whether their country moves westward or into the orbit of the Kremlin. A “yes” vote would give popular legitimacy to the agreement struck by Greece and Macedonia in June to change the country’s name from the “Republic of Macedonia” to the “Republic of North Macedonia.” In exchange, Greece would withdraw its veto on its neighbor and enable Macedonia to begin the accession process to NATO and the European Union.

The accord was a rare bright spot in the Western Balkans, which has endured increasing democratic and economic backsliding. Western governments have welcomed the agreement, with key figures including U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and German Chancellor Angel Merkel visiting Skopje to endorse the accord. Meanwhile, the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is working hard to sell the agreement to voters, organizing rallies throughout the country and launching a glitzy social media campaign urging high voter turnout and a “yes” vote.

While the result is far from certain, these efforts appear to have had an impact. Recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows strong support for the agreement: 57 percent of respondents support the agreement, while slightly less than half (49 percent) of voters say they will vote yes. (Tellingly, the “yes” camp views the concession on the country’s name as a necessary compromise to further the Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions.)

High voter turnout will be key to the referendum’s success, as 50 percent turnout is required for the result to be legally binding. Official figures put the country’s voting population at 1.8 million, so at least 900,000 Macedonians will have to cast a ballot for the vote to be valid.

At this point, however, the likelihood of reaching that threshold is in serious doubt. Macedonia’s census numbers are viewed with skepticism both inside and outside the country, and experts say the total voting public is no more than 1.5 million due to emigration and statistical inaccuracies. Compounding this challenge, the official voter rolls are estimated to contain up to half-a-million “ghost voters:” people who have died, are underage, are listed multiple times at different residences or are non-residents.

If the voting population of Macedonia is actually much lower than the official figure, a turnout of 900,000 may be unattainable, even with relatively high turnout. However, even though polling suggests modest support for the referendum proposal, recent projections of voter turnout have come in well below the 50 percent threshold, while calls for a boycott are gaining in strength.

Despite government statements to the contrary, a turnout below 50 percent would undercut the validity of the referendum.  This outcome would force a parliamentary vote in which the support of two-thirds of the 120-seat chamber would be required to pass the amendments needed under the agreement. Prime Minister Zaev’s SDSM-led coalition will likely only be able to muster 69 votes against the opposition VMRO party’s 51 members.

Whatever the result, the fallout from the referendum will not only affect the future of Macedonia’s domestic politics, but its place in Europe and in the geopolitical contest between the democratic West and the revisionist regime in Moscow. These tactics are in keeping with the Kremlin’s strategy of pushing back against the expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions wherever possible. During a recent visit to Skopje, Secretary Mattis said there was evidence that Russia is funding groups advocating the defeat the referendum. Others allege that the Kremlin is funding pro-boycott websites, and analysis of social media indicates attempts to stoke tensions between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians (who disproportionately favor the agreement) as a way of undermining the process. This would be extremely dangerous given Macedonia’s history of inter-ethnic tensions, which led to armed conflict in 2001. Despite post-conflict efforts to increase minority rights in the country, ethnic Albanians still consider themselves second-class citizens.

The Greek government led by Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party has also alleged Russian meddling to scuttle the agreement. In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats on the grounds of orchestrating influence operations against the accords. A Russian-Greek businessman has been accused of formulating a scheme to provoke violent anti-demonstrations ahead of the vote.

The “yes” campaign also faces powerful opposition within Greece, which could cause problems even if the Macedonian referendum succeeds. Mirroring the opposition in Macedonia, Greece’s center-right New Democracy party and the Independent Greeks (Syriza’s right-wing partner in the governing coalition) claim that any form of the name “Macedonia” is illegitimate, arguing that it should be reserved for Greece’s northern region and its use by another country implies territorial claims.  Both parties have promised to vote against the agreement when it is submitted to the Greek parliament following the Macedonian referendum.

The discomfort of some Macedonians to the renaming of their country should by no means be dismissed or diminished—it touches upon issues of identity and no doubt strikes some Macedonians as an unfair capitulation to pressure from neighboring Greece. While the decision rightly rests with the Macedonian people, it is crucial that the voters understand the consequences of refusing to endorse the compromise.

Simply put, if the referendum fails, Macedonia may not have another chance to join NATO for years given growing enlargement fatigue and Russia’s increasingly aggressive destabilizing efforts. This will deliver a strategic victory to Moscow by knocking a NATO-aspirant off its westward path and will reinforce the efficacy of the Kremlin’s campaign of disinformation and meddling in European affairs. It could also upset the country’s delicate inter-ethnic balance by causing pro-Western Albanians to question their place in a society where the Slavic-Macedonian majority is divided between those who support NATO membership and those who would prefer to draw closer to Russia.

Macedonia has traveled a long road to what proponents see as an uncomfortable but necessary compromise. It is crucial that the Macedonian people come out and vote on September 30 to decide which direction the country takes in the next leg of its journey.

Paul McCarthy is the acting regional director for Europe at the International Republican Institute.