Macedonians have voted in a key referendum on whether to re-name their country North Macedonia in a bid to settle a long-running row with Greece and unlock its path to NATO and EU membership.
Polls for some 1.8 million voters opened at 7am local time (5GMT) and closed at 7pm. The question on the referendum ballot was: “Are you for NATO and EU membership with acceptance of the agreement with Greece”.
The referendum is not binding, but a ‘yes’ majority would give parliament a political mandate to change the constitution.
If the deal is passed through the referendum and is ratified by two-thirds of MPs, the Greek parliament will be called on to give the final stamp of approval.
While the Macedonian government plans to call any significant majority in favour of the deal a success, the right-wing opposition may question the vote’s credibility if turnout is below 50 percent.
Macedonia has struggled for recognition of its name since its birth in 1991 when the landlocked country declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Greece, which has its own northern province called Macedonia, has always maintained that Macedonia’s name represented a claim on its territory.
It vetoed Macedonia’s entrance into NATO and the EU, and forced it to enter the United Nations under a provisional name as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev argues that accepting a new name is a price worth paying for admission into the EU and NATO.
But nationalist opponents say it would undermine the ethnic identity of the country’s Slavic majority population. President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist, has said he will boycott the referendum.
The dispute stretches back nearly three decades, with both countries claiming links to Alexander the Great’s ancient empire of Macedon, which spanned the territories.
A grandiose “antiquisation” project under Macedonia’s former government that plastered Skopje with neo-classical facades and statues of Alexander the Great added fuel to the fire.
But in June Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a landmark compromise under which Greece would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO in return for the name change.
Some feel it is embarrassing to change their name at the request of another country.
But a desire anchor their future to the West – and the economic prosperity that could bring – is a powerful motivation to accept the deal in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“We cannot really say it is fair, but the EU and NATO matter more for all of us, so let’s move forward,” 28-year-old Abedin Memeti said ahead of the vote.