28 Macedonian rightwing political parties and NGOs led by the small pro-Russian United Macedonia party have launched a campaign to boycott the referendum on the name deal with Greece due to be held on September 30.
The referendum is a crucial step in the implementation of the name deal with Greece, which will unblock Macedonia's EU and Nato integration processes. The question that will be posed in the referendum is: Are you for EU and Nato integration by accepting the deal between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece? Under the deal Macedonia has agreed to change its name to North Macedonia.
Around 910,000 people, or half of the eligible voters, would need to vote in the referendum to make it successful.
The coalition behind the campaign called “Macedonia Boycotts” will be led by Janko Bacev, leader of the small United Macedonia party.
One of the signatories is the distinguished former member of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, Filip Petrovski.
In an interview with broadcaster Alsat-M, Bacev confirmed that his party is pro-Russian oriented and that Macedonia does not need the EU or Nato, but an alliance with Russia.
Moscow is openly against the accession of more countries from the Western Balkans into Nato, with the country’s foreign ministry claiming July 12 that Macedonia was being "pulled into Nato by force" and that such moves do not strengthen security, but deepen divisions and tensions in Europe.
Two Russian diplomats were expelled from Greece last month, and two other Russian citizens banned from entering the country last month, after Athens accused Russia of trying to foment opposition to the historic name deal with Macedonia.
The Greek authorities claimed the Russian diplomats were encouraging rallies in Greece to oppose the name deal, including offering bribes to opponents of the agreement. Opposition to the deal is fierce on both sides of the Greek-Macedonian border, with many mass protests held in Greek cities against the deal that was signed by the two countries’ prime ministers in June.
Three years ago, Russia was accused by Montenegro’s then prime minister (now president) Milo Djukanovic of backing opposition parties to foment unrest in the country and create an image of instability as it tried to secure an invitation to enter Nato. Russians linked to the country’s secret services are among those on trial for an alleged coup attempt the Montenegrin authorities said they foiled ahead of the October 2016 general election. The plotters are believed to have planned to install the pro-Russian Democratic Front party in power and assassinate Djukanovic. However, Montenegro became Nato’s 29th member state in July 27.
The least bad option
More important than the efforts of the group of smaller rightwing parties to boycott the election is the decision of the Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE. The party is against the deal and the referendum question, but has not said clearly so far whether it will boycott the referendum. Should VMRO-DPMNE urge its supporters to join the boycott, there is a strong chance of less than half the electorate turning out to vote.
Social Democrat Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called on the opposition to vote in the referendum with the aim of ensuring turnout reaches the 50% mark needed for the plebiscite to be successful.
Zaev has said repeatedly that he will resign if the majority of population vote against the name deal. However, he also said that the parliament will decide on the name deal if the referendum ends unsuccessfully.
With less than two months to go before the vote, Macedonians are deeply divided on their future. Few like the deal that will involve a change of the country’s name for internal as well as international use, as well as a requirement to start using Greek names for cities that were once Macedonian, with Greece's second city Thessaloniki, known in Macedonian as Solun, being one example.
Some see accepting the deal as the least bad option, since a yes vote in the referendum will pave the way for Macedonia to finally enter Nato and make progress towards EU accession. They fear a no vote would mean an end to western support that would leave Macedonia vulnerable to Russian influence or to a renewed push for federalisation from the country’s substantial Albanian minority. On the other hand, many Macedonians are staunchly against the deal, though those against are split over whether to boycott the referendum — which could lead to the result being invalidated if turnout slips below 50% — or turn up and vote no.