Despite the Western countries best endeavours, including Nato General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the FYROM population had boycotted the referendum on the country name change to the Republic of North Macedonia. The referendum was intended to cease the conflict between Greece and FYROM over country’s name which also includes a traditional geographic region of Northern Greece. The legitimate outcome of the referendum would have opened a door to further integration in the structures of the European Union and Nato.
While over 91% of voters supported the name change, only 37% of the electorate turned up to cast a ballot. A fifty per-cent threshold was required to make a decision binding to the parliament. The result, therefore, did not resolve the row between the countries. Not to mention the fact that it will only extend Macedonia’s path to access Western institutions.
There was, however, a big player allegedly engaged with this historical referendum and which is claimed to largely affect its outcome. Russia, like in other European and American elections, is accused of meddling in the referendum result in order to maintain the strategic influence in the Balkan region.
Moscow had encouraged to boycott the referendum by striking tensions with majority-Slav Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority through social media. In July, football fans confessed that they were paid to fuel violence at demonstrations against the agreement between the leaders of FYROM and Greece. At the same time, four Russian diplomats were expelled from Northern Greece for attempting to stir up anti-Macedonian sentiment. If this was not enough, a Greek businessman had paid nationalists to inflame acts of violence and, supposedly, the money he received came from Russia.
Moscow had successfully prevented further expansion of Western influence. Particularly crucial step after Albania’s and Montenegro’s accession to Nato in 2009 and 2017, correspondingly. It used its old communist practices such as preying on ethnic and religious unrest to involve right-wing populist groups gaining more power and say in country’s affairs. The VMRO’s nationalist grassroots, as well as Macedonian President Ivanov, called for a boycott in opposition to the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia and Prime Minister Zaev who pursued the change. The name change could only be approved with both parties’ consent as they constitute 83% of total seat share in the parliament.
The dispute between the two countries raised after the breakup of Yugoslavia when Macedonia, the successor state, formed an independent country. Since Greece and FYROM share the same historical region alongside the legacy of ancient conqueror Alexander the Great, Greece had been blocking the country’s membership to a number of international organisations, including it’s 2008 veto to join Nato.
Regardless, the agreement between Greece and FYROM has not died yet. Ninety-one per-cent support for the name change is an outstanding result even though only a third of the population voted in the referendum. With the strong support from the West and Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev, the country still requires a supermajority to amend the constitution to adopt the new name. This makes it unfeasible in the recent political realm, at least, for now. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, since December 2016 in opposition, has focused more power including crucial public sector jobs. The name change referendum was just a beginning to a long-awaited European integration.