Macedonians cast ballots Sunday on whether to rename their country North Macedonia in a bid to end a long-running row with Greece and unlock a path to NATO and E.U. membership.
The vote is an emotional moment for a country that has struggled for recognition of its name since 1991, when the former Yugoslav republic declared independence.
At the time, Athens kicked up a major fuss, accusing Skopje of stealing the name of its own northern province, which is also called Macedonia.
The dispute dives deep into history with both countries vying to lay claim to Alexander the Great’s ancient empire of Macedon, which spanned their territories.
But in June, Macedonia’s new premier Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a landmark compromise under which Athens would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the E.U. and NATO in return for a change of name.
While the Macedonian government is likely to call any significant majority in favor of the deal a success, the rightwing opposition may question the vote’s credibility if turnout is below 50 percent.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and were to close 12 hours later, but after six hours of voting, turnout stood at just 16 percent, the electoral commission said. The figure is far lower than it was at the same stage in the 2016 elections.
Zaev has billed the referendum as a painful but historic opportunity to break the 27-year-old stalemate.
— Ruptly (@Ruptly) September 30, 2018
‘A Beautiful Day’
“Today is a beautiful day, a beautiful holiday for the country. Today the citizens are going out to decide on their future,” he said after voting in Strumica, his eastern hometown where he once served as mayor.
Voters began trickling into schools and other polling stations around the country shortly after the polls opened.
“I hope that the result will be positive. This referendum will change something if it opens the door to Europe and NATO,” said Olivera Argirovska, a 74-year-old retired nurse, after casting her ballot in a high school in the capital Skopje.
“It will change things for the youth,” she told AFP.
Few Macedonians are enthused about the new name, saying they have been unfairly bullied by Greece.
“I am not happy, and I do not know anyone who likes this deal,” said 55-year old Danica Taneska, who admitted voting ‘no’ to the change.
But a desire to anchor their future to the West — and the economic prosperity that it could bring — has been a driving force behind the ‘yes’ vote in one of Europe’s poorest nations.
“We cannot really say it is fair, but the E.U. and NATO matter more for all of us, so let’s move forward,” 28-year-old Abedin Memeti said ahead of the vote.
Greece Watching Closely
The referendum is not binding, but a ‘yes’ majority would give parliament a political mandate to change the constitution.
If the deal is backed in the referendum and ratified by two-thirds of MPs, the Greek parliament will be called on to give it the final stamp of approval.
Sunday’s vote is being closely watched across the border in Greece, where nationalists staged a protest against the deal earlier this month.
“We hope for a positive outcome for the proceedings to progress with the constitutional review,” Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said on the radio. “Any other result would create a disturbance.”
Some critics of the name deal have been calling for a boycott, including President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist opposition.
Massive emigration in recent decades could also affect turnout numbers, with nearly a quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1 million residents believed to be living abroad.
Less than 3,000 of those overseas have signed up to vote.
Western Balkans Foothold
Europe and the U.S. have campaigned hard for the deal, with many leaders passing through Skopje this month to urge Macedonians to seize the “historic” opportunity.
NATO has already issued an invite — on hold until the deal passes — while E.U. accession talks are scheduled to begin next year.
The West is keen to have another foothold in the Western Balkans, a region where Russia, which is opposed to NATO expansion, has historically had influence.
At home, those in favor of the deal say a desire for an E.U. future is helping bind ethnic Macedonians with the Albanian minority, who are broadly pro-West.
While Macedonia avoided the full-scale inter-ethnic wars that rippled across the region during the collapse of Yugoslavia, it was roiled by an Albanian insurgency in 2001 that left more than 100 dead.
A peace deal was reached later that year granting Albanians more political rights, but tensions have remained.
“This is the first time I am seeing Macedonians and Albanians campaigning together for common goals,” Besa Arifi, a law professor, told AFP.
“This will give us more opportunities to unite all citizens around shared values,” he added.