Macedonia's Name-Change Referendum Is Undercut by Low Turnout

(Bloomberg) -- A dispute in Europe’s most unstable region may be drawing to a close as voters in the Republic of Macedonia decide in a referendum whether to rename their country.

The former Yugoslav republic of 2 million people is the latest flashpoint in the struggle for influence between Russia and the West in eastern Europe. The government in Skopje, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, is trying to steer his nation toward membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow opposes the further expansion of the military alliance into what it considers its sphere of influence.

Macedonia's Name-Change Referendum Is Undercut by Low Turnout

The consultative ballot will decide whether Zaev has support to proceed with a plan to change the country’s name to Republic of North Macedonia and settle a 27-year-old row with Greece. Athens has blocked its neighbor’s accession into the EU and NATO, saying it misappropriated its label from the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, after which its own northern province is named.

“I hope this will be a smooth, democratic process, that people will make the choice for our country to move forward finally towards the EU, towards NATO, towards friendship with our neighbors in the region,” Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said Sunday as he cast his vote in Skopje. “This is an opportunity for the region to show that it can produce future, and not only history.”

A Sept. 10 survey published by the Societas Civilis Institute for Democracy showed more than two-thirds of respondents would vote in favor of the name change. Turnout, however, was 29 percent at 5 p.m., below the 50 percent threshold needed to validate the referendum. Polls close at 7 p.m., with results expected later in the evening.

Read more here about ending the bitter dispute over the name ‘Macedonia’

Zaev, whose Social Democratic Union took power in 2017, argues that EU membership is crucial to raising living standards, which at 37 percent of the bloc’s average in terms of output per capita, make the country one of Europe’s poorest nations. It may also help attract investment and chip away at unemployment that was 21 percent in the second quarter.

But the plan faces challenges. Some nationalist politicians in the Republic of Macedonia have called for a boycott of the vote. U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, have accused Russia of spending money and launching a misinformation campaign to scupper the ballot, and social media has been flooded with appeals for voters to stay home.

The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has also rejected the deal with Greece, and President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to vote and vowed to prevent changes to the constitution, calling the agreement “historical suicide.”

While that may result in low turnout, lawmakers aren’t obliged to follow through on the referendum result. Even if fewer than 50 percent of the country’s voters cast ballots, if those who do are in favor of the deal with Greece, the cabinet will probably proceed with its plan to change the constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani said earlier this month.

Low turnout, however, may undermine Zaev’s efforts to win backing from opposition lawmakers for the two-thirds majority needed to change the country’s name in the constitution, which is ruling coalition lacks.

“The opposition is obviously boycotting, which wasn’t their official stance,” Dimitar Bechev, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council at D.C., said by phone. “There’s still some room for the deal to be completed in parliament, but the door may be closing.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.