Macedonia’s Bid to Join EU, NATO in Limbo After Low Vote Turnout on Name Change

October 1, 2018 Updated: October 1, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia—Macedonia’s hopes of joining the European Union and NATO were left in limbo on Oct. 1, a day after voters backed a plan to change the country’s name by a wide margin, but failed to hit the 50 percent turnout required for the referendum’s result to be considered valid.

While Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he would press on with a vote in parliament to endorse the change of name to the Republic of North Macedonia, the nation’s defense minister said an early election might be necessary, potentially derailing the whole plan due to a tight timeframe.

Some 91 percent of voters backed the name change, which was demanded by neighboring Greece as a precondition for lifting its veto on Macedonia joining the organizations, But turnout was just 36.9 percent, final figures show, far below the required threshold.

Greece has insisted on the change because it views the name “Macedonia” as implying a territorial claim on a northern Greek region of that name. Greece’s parliament must also approve the June name deal and, as is the case with Zaev, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is facing opposition from his nationalist foes.

The EU, echoing the pro-Western Zaev, hailed the referendum result as a ringing endorsement of Macedonia’s plans to join the bloc and NATO. But Russia, which opposes NATO eastern expansion, said tersely it expected the law in Macedonia to be respected.

Zaev lacks the two-thirds majority in parliament to push through the name change, and opponents of the name change have vowed to block the legislation, with some boycotting the vote in order to invalidate the result.

“In the coming week, we will assess if we can secure the necessary majority for the constitutional changes, and if not, we will call an early election,” Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska told Reuters. “The downside is that the election would postpone adoption of the constitutional changes for 45 to 60 days.”

‘Political Crisis’

Political analysts said the referendum outcome greatly complicates the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic’s push to join Western structures.

“Instead of having a clearer picture, the outcome of the referendum will only deepen the political crisis,’ said political analyst Petar Arsovski. “We are likely heading towards early elections and Macedonia does not have time for that.”

Greece and the EU have ried to put a brave face on the setback.

“We hope that Mr. Zaev’s initiative for a constitutional reform will be successful,” Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said on Oct. 1. “The Greek government will continue with sobriety and prudence … to support the need for an implementation of the deal. This opportunity must not be wasted.”

An early election could be called in Macedonia for the end of November at the earliest, pushing the constitutional changes into the spring.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement: “The [Macedonia] parliament will now be called upon to proceed with the next steps for implementation of the name agreement by deciding on adoption” of the legal changes.

By Ivana Sekularac