Battle Over the Name Macedonia Rages After Weak Vote Turnout

(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia’s leader threatened to call snap elections next month if he fails to win support to change his country’s name after voters backed him in a referendum clouded by low turnout.

The conflicted outcome of Sunday’s plebiscite sets the stage for a bruising battle ahead for Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who’s pushing to settle a 27-year-old row with Greece and open a path toward western integration. It also underscores the intensity of a struggle for sway in the continent’s most volatile region between the European Union and the NATO on one side and on the other Russia, which opposes the further expansion of the military alliance.

Battle Over the Name Macedonia Rages After Weak Vote Turnout

More than 90 percent backed an agreement with Greece to change their Balkan state’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, the Electoral Commission said Monday. Still, only 37 percent of citizens turned out to vote, casting a cloud over the referendum which was of advisory nature.

“The ‘yes’ vote is bigger than any win of any political party in Macedonia’s newest history,” Zaev told supporters in Skopje, the capital. “Now is the time for lawmakers to follow the vote of the people to quicken processes for EU and NATO integration.”

Battle Over the Name Macedonia Rages After Weak Vote Turnout

His ruling coalition will hold talks with lawmakers in the next few days to secure the two-thirds majority needed to change the name in a constitutional amendment, Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska told reporters on Monday. It will have to win some backing from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which rejects the change after overseeing an escalation in the rift with Greece before it lost power last year. The party rejected the referendum as a failure and Chairman Hristijan Mickoski said it had ruined the government’s legitimacy.

“I expect VMRO-DPMNE’S lawmakers to respect the democratic will of the majority of citizens who voted,” Zaev said. “Otherwise there’s nothing else left -- we’ll have to use the other democratic instrument, which means immediate snap parliamentary elections.”

Athens agreed to the name switch after blocking its neighbor’s accession into the Western clubs, saying it misappropriated the appellation from the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, after which its own northern province is named. The Greek Foreign Ministry urged for “sobriety from all sides” after what it called a “contradictory” referendum result.

Boycott Hurts

Pending the successful conclusion of the deal, the EU has given a conditional date for the start of accession talks in June. Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Vice President Federica Mogherini urged parliament to implement the agreement.

“This is a historic opportunity not only for reconciliation in the region, but also for decisively moving the country forward on its European Union path,” both officials said in a statement.

A boycott by some nationalist politicians hurt the turnout. U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, have accused Russia of spending money and launching a misinformation campaign to scupper the ballot. But the result may have given Zaev an advantage, said Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council.

“Despite the low turnout, these half a million voters may be the highest number of voters that have supported anything in Macedonia recently,” he said. “It’s up to the deputies to decide now, but Zaev raised a high stake by threatening with a snap vote. It’s a bold move.”

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