Macedonia sets date for referendum on name deal with Greece

Macedonia sets date for referendum on name deal with Greece
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tspiras at the signing of the name deal.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje July 30, 2018

Macedonia will hold a referendum on the name deal with Greece, that opens the way for the EU and Nato integration, on September 30, the parliament decided on July 30.

The session was held following weeks of uncertainty as the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party tried to obstruct the process of holding a referendum by blocking the setting up of a state election commission that will be responsible for organising the plebiscite. Finally, the election commission, which will be headed by an opposition member, was established on July 25.

68 MPs in the 120-seat parliament voted in favour of the decision for the country to hold a consultative referendum with the question: “Are you for EU and Nato membership by accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”

There were no abstentions or no votes. However, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE did not support the referendum question and left the session before the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE argues that the question is unclear and manipulative; it wants a simple and understandable question such as: “Do you support the agreement with Greece which foresees a name change or not?”

Under the name deal with Greece, the tiny Balkan country will be renamed North Macedonia to please Greek demands, as Greece has a province in the north with the same name, which it gained following the Balkan wars in 1913.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said earlier that Macedonia will hold a referendum with or without the opposition as it is a crucial step in the implementation of the name agreement, which in turn is needed for the country to gain Nato and later on the EU membership.

MPs from the governing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) said that on September 30 citizens will make a decision about whether they are for a successful, European state or for an isolated country.

Around 910,000 people or half of the eligible voters would need to vote in the referendum to make it successful. 

It is still unclear if VMRO-DPMNE will call on its supporters to vote against the name agreement or to boycott it, which would mean the threshold might not be reached.

The government said previously that if the referendum fails, then the decision on the name change will be taken by MPs.

The costs for the referendum are estimated at €3.5mn.

Before and after the signing of the name deal with Greece on June 17 in Prespes, Greece, protests were held in Macedonia and in Greece organised by opponents of the agreement on the both sides of the border.

In Macedonia, people protested against the change of the name and the need for making constitutional changes, while opponents in Greece do not want the term Macedonia to be included in the new name and are upset as the Macedonian language and nationality are recognised.

Later, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and banned the entry of another two, accusing them of trying to foment opposition against the name agreement.

Macedonia has been waiting for a long time in front of the Nato and EU doors, as Greece had been blocking its attempts to join Nato and EU due to the unresolved name issue.

The situation became worse after the now opposition VMRO-DPMNE came to power in 2006 and angered Greece by playing the nationalist card, which led to the halt of its EU and Nato integration processes.

However, after the SDSM came to power at the end of May 2017, it tried to improve relations with all neighbours including Greece and made tremendous efforts to solve the name dispute so that the country could make progress towards the two blocs.

Finally in June, the European Commission decided to give a cautious green light to Macedonia and also to Albania to launch accession talks next June pending the needed reforms and conditional on Macedonia also implementing the name deal. 

In July, Nato invited Macedonia to become its 30th member, but also on condition the country first changes its name to North Macedonia as foreseen in the name agreement with Greece.

Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani said earlier this month that the calendar for the EU screening process before the planned launch of EU accession negotiations next year has been determined, and the screening will start with Chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights in September.

Pre-accession talks with Nato also have been launched.