Former Yugoslav Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the European Union hangs in a delicate political balance after Sunday’s referendum.
The government had proposed changing the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, which would remove a Greek veto to its entry into both bodies.
While 91.4 percent of those who voted supported the change, only 36.9 percent of eligible voters turned out, making the result legally invalid. The low turnout followed an opposition-led campaign to boycott the referendum.
The result has complicated the political scene in the capital Skopje. The coalition government, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, vows to push the name change through parliament, where it holds 68 seats in the 120-seat chamber. It seeks the support of 12 opposition MPs to achieve the two-thirds majority it needs.
“In the coming week, we will assess if we can secure the necessary majority for the constitutional changes and, if not, we will call an early election,” Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska told Reuters.
“The downside is that the election would postpone adoption of the constitutional changes for 45 to 60 days,” she said.
The election would come towards the end of November and is a likely scenario if the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party sticks to its guns.
Zaev’s coalition of social democrats, liberals and minority parties was sworn in just 16 months ago, but he has staked its future on normalising relations with Greece and achieving EU and NATO entry.
The country has called itself the Republic of Macedonia since independence in 1991 and more than 100 countries have recognised it bilaterally, but its progress in key international bodies remains frozen. It became a member of the United Nations without a name in April 1993 and is referred to there as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom).
In June, Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, signed an agreement whereby Greece would agree to the country’s use of the name Macedonia with the qualifier Severna, or Northern. Greece has insisted that an unqualified ‘Republic of Macedonia’ would preserve communist-era irredentist ambitions on its own northern region of the same name.
The referendum result was a slap in the face of the EU and NATO. In the weeks before the referendum, western leaders paraded through the country’s capital, Skopje, to support the Yes vote.
European Council President Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that “an overwhelming majority of those voting” supported the agreement. They urged politicians to “seize this historic opportunity” and “decide on the way forward.”
In Greece, the Syriza government said it “supports the initiative of Mr Zaev to preserve the momentum of the Prespes Agreement” – a reference to the deal signed by the two governments at Prespes lake in June.
Conservative parties in Greece and former Yugoslav Macedonia oppose the deal. Syriza accused them of “preserving a climate of nationalism and suspicion”.
Interviewed on state television, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said the yes vote had been substantial by normal electoral standards.
“George Ivanov, that terrible president of the neighbouring country… said the referendum failed and it’s over,” said Kotzias.
“He was elected president with 520,000 votes… the Yes vote in the referendum was 610,000. So why does the person elected with half a million believe himself legitimate but considers 610,000 votes invalid?”
The opposition New Democracy party on Monday said Syriza had put its interests ahead of the national interest.
“New Democracy will make every effort to prevent the nationally damaging Prespes Agreement from coming into force,” the party said in a statement.
The hopes for a deal in parliament are now much slimmer than they were before the referendum. If the Zaev government does hold an election and win an increased majority in parliament, it will have to move fast to ratify the Prespes Agreement and the constitutional changes.
Greece is due to hold a general election by September next year, but is widely thought to be planning an early election, perhaps coinciding with European Parliament and local elections in May.