As Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev struggles to find political support at home for the name deal with Greece, Russia raised the idea of discussing the legality of the deal, also known as the Prespa agreement, in the UN Security Council.
Only 36.9% of registered voters in Macedonia cast their votes in the September 30 referendum which asked citizens if they are for the change of the country’s name to North Macedonia. While an overwhelming majority of those that did vote backed the deal, the number of yes votes fell far short of 50% of the electorate, and the opposition are now saying they will not back the deal in parliament.
If implemented, the deal with Greece, which objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province with the same name, will unblock Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process. However, Zaev faces a tough task of putting together the two-thirds majority to pass the deal in parliament.
Accusations of interference
Moscow, which strongly opposes EU and Nato expansion in the Western Balkans, has now weighed in, with the foreign ministry saying that turnout of less than 50% cannot be considered as valid.
“It clearly indicates that Macedonian voters chose to boycott the solutions imposed on Skopje and Athens externally — as the leading politicians from Nato and EU member states participated in this large-scale propaganda campaign directly, freely interfering in the internal affairs of this Balkan state,” the ministry said in a statement on October 1.
It added that Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is closely monitoring the development of the situation.
The ministry reiterated that Moscow’s position is that a long-term solution can only be reached by the two parties on their own, within the framework of the law, with broad public support and without any external interference.
According to the Russian foreign ministry, the Prespa agreement fails to meet these criteria and it is inconsistent with international law and the Constitution of Macedonia. This was repeatedly emphasised by Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, including from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, it added.
“We proceed from the fact that according to paragraph 3 of the UN Security Council Resolution 845, the results of the talks between Skopje and Athens will be considered at the UN Security Council,” the ministry underlined.
However, Macedonian state-run news agency MIA reported on October 3 that no discussions in the UN are stipulated in the deal.
Before the vote, some Western leaders including US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis accused Moscow of trying to influence Macedonia's referendum with the aim of preventing the country’s accession into Nato.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry claimed 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.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reiterated on October 3 that the implementation of the deal is the only chance for Macedonia to become a Nato member.
Not giving up
Despite the low turnout, of those who voted, 91% said yes, which prompted the government to proceed with the process of implementing the deal, for which it needs support from opposition MPs.
Meanwhile top bodies of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which is against the deal, will convene on October 3-4 to discuss the political situation following the referendum.
VMRO has already announced it won’t support constitutional changes in the parliament.
At the same time, the governing SDSM party will hold a meeting to decide its next steps.
PM Zaev said previously if he fails to persuade some opposition lawmakers to vote for the changes — he needs 80 votes in the 120-seat parliament and currently 71 are on his side — then Macedonia will hold early elections, possibly on November 25.
The failure of the referendum raised concerns about the stability of the whole Western Balkans region, where several countries are stuck in political conflicts with their neighbours, creating obstacles on their EU membership paths.
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic warned on October 2 that the outcome of the name deal referendum in Macedonia should be seen by the EU as an "alarm signal" that enlargement policy needs a more serious approach and decisive steps.