On Sunday, almost 1.8 million voters in former Yugoslav Macedonia will decide whether to change the country’s name to Northern Macedonia.
The proposal stems from an agreement last June – the Prespes Agreement – with the Greek government aiming to normalise relations between the two countries.
Athens and Skopje have been at odds since the fall of Yugoslavia when its six republics declared independence, the southernmost calling itself the Republic of Macedonia.
Greece objects on the grounds that this implies territorial claims on its northern region of Macedonia.
In return for adding the qualifier “Northern” to its name, Greece will lift its standing veto on its neighbour’s membership in the European Union and NATO.
The question put to voters is: “Are you in favour of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?”
Polls will open at 7am (05:00 GMT) and close at 7pm (17:00 GMT).
Opinion polls show that a large block of voters supports the Prespes Agreement – a survey on August 8 showed 41.5 percent in favour and 31.5 percent against the name change. An August 29 survey showed 57 percent in favour, and 38 percent against.
But the crucial question is: How many will vote?
To be constitutionally valid, the referendum requires a majority of 50 percent plus one from a turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters plus one.
The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has increasingly encouraged people to boycott the vote rather than voting No – so as not to put the party on the wrong side of history should the Yes vote have the majority and taking into account that it is easier to persuade people to do nothing than something active.
A survey released this month suggests that this tactic may be working. By its count, only 58 percent of voters will cast ballots on Sunday.
Even though that doesn’t invalidate the result, it reduces the yes vote to 40.9 percent – not enough to win, and below the 41.5 percent of yes voters polled in July.
In comments made to Al Jazeera earlier this week, Chris Deliso, an American journalist based in Skopje since 2002, is even less optimistic. “The perception that a legitimate ‘no’ vote exists is false, as the Boycott movement has repeatedly emphasised. This is because the referendum is meant to be valid only with a 51 percent turnout, meaning that whoever opposes the deal but votes ‘no’ is actually bolstering the turnout and legitimizing the process,” he said.
“In the end, there is only a ‘yes’ vote and a boycott … Thus, the two scenarios that would embarrass the government would be either a very low turnout, or a massive discrepancy between the Yes and No campaign. At the moment, it appears realistic that at least 40 percent will turn out,” Deliso added.
Another benchmark to compare these polls is the fact that on September 8, 1991, shortly after independence, 72 percent of citizens voted ‘yes’ in a referendum on the question: “Do you support a sovereign and independent state of Macedonia, with the right to enter into a future union with the other sovereign states of Yugoslavia?”
The strongest argument for a Yes vote is clearly that it removes Greece’s veto on the country’s path to European Union and NATO membership.
Those who favour joining the European Union (83 percent) and NATO (77 percent) are roughly double the number polling in favour of the Prespes Agreement.
Some object to the very fact of a referendum, pointing out that no other former Yugoslav republic had to undergo this process.
Others object to the qualifier “Northern”, saying that it changes their identity. According to the agreement, their passports will henceforth list their nationality as “Macedonian – citizen of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”.
When talks with Greece began in January, UN special envoy Matthew Nimetz handed the two sides a list of five suggested names:
Greece was prepared to accept any of the first four. The government in Skopje selected “Republic of Northern Macedonia” as the least objectionable.
Some voters also object to the stipulations of Article 7, whereby: “The official language and other attributes of [former Yugoslav Macedonia] are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage [of Greece].”
This means that those who self-identify as ethnic Macedonians abjure all claim to Greece’s Hellenistic heritage – the empire of Alexander the Great and its aftermath – which is a component of the Greek sense of nationhood.
These cultural distinctions were included on Greece’s insistence, to sweeten the pill of sharing Macedonian identity with their Slav neighbours, something most Greeks still object to.
They want it made clear that non-Greek Macedonians are so named by virtue of shared geography, not ethnicity or heritage.
Despite the fact that the agreement officially only addresses the issue of the country’s name, it is the separate issue of identity that could sink it.
This is underscored by the fact that ethnic Albanians, who comprise one-third of the population of former Yugoslav Macedonia, support the agreement to the tune of 88 percent.
Unaffected by the identity issue, they simply want the country to press ahead with EU and NATO membership.
Both blocs are strongly encouraging the Yes vote.
“I sense a real political will to move on with your country’s Euro-Atlantic integration,” said European Council President Donald Tusk when he visited Skopje in April.
The Sofia Declaration, which the EU signed in May, lends “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a joint statement with Tusk after the Prespes Agreement was signed, said: “We hope this unique opportunity to re-launch the wider W Balkan region’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration will not be wasted. This agreement sets an example to others on how to consolidate peace and stability across the region.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, NATO’s Stoltenberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, all visited Skopje this month to support the Yes vote.
European Union expansion stalled after the addition of Croatia in 2013 and was reversed with the 2016 Brexit vote which saw the United Kingdom decide to leave the EU. The Western Balkans have languished in a slow accession process for over a decade.
NATO enlargement has remained alive with the accession of Montenegro last year, but it has faced Russian military incursions in larger aspiring members Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). These have appeared to define the alliance’s limits and the limits of American hegemony.
Both institutions appear to want to keep alive the momentum of expansion and integration as a way of reaffirming the Euro-Atlantic post-war order.
Athens and Skopje failed to find a solution in the 1990s because Greece did not want to accept a name that included the word Macedonia.
In 1995, after four years of failed diplomacy, the two sides settled for an Interim Accord whereby Greece recognised its northern neighbour as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
In the mid-2000s, Greece signalled its willingness to compromise on a composite name that included the word Macedonia, but the nationalist government of the VMRO-DPMNE under Premier Nikola Gruevski in Skopje ruled this out.
It went a step further than its predecessors and laid claim to ancient Macedonian heritage in addition to the Macedonian name, putting up giant bronze statues of Alexander the Great and his father Philip in the capital.
The Gruevski government fell from power in December 2016 and Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats formed a government on May 31, 2017. They immediately sent Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov to Athens to signal readiness to re-open talks with Greece.
Greece is contractually obliged to ratify the agreement if its neighbour ratifies it and passes a number of constitutional amendments in parliament.
This referendum is consultative, so its result is not binding. The Zaev government has suggested that it may try to ratify the agreement in parliament. It holds a majority of 68 in the 120-seat chamber, so it would need to attract 12 votes from the opposition to form a two-thirds majority.
Alternatively, it could declare a general election to increase its parliamentary majority, which could be a gamble.
“It’s a bit odd that the government has taken such efforts in terms of public-relations outreach and visits of high-profile dignitaries to bolster support for the referendum, since they’ve already said the voting is just consultative,” said Deliso.
“It’s rather paradoxical that on the one hand the government is keen to get public approval and turnout, but on the other states it will proceed in parliament regardless of how the people vote.”