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Macedonia: historic renaming referendum getting closer

EU and US support the "yes", but there are many critical stances

10 September, 17:06
(by Stefano Giantin) (ANSA) - BELGRADE - A nation at the heart of the Balkans, led by a new leadership that sees the entry into the European Union and Nato as strategic goals, is preparing to go to the polls for a crucial and unprecedented vote. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is holding on September 30 a referendum to confirm or not the future new name of the country, "Republic of Northern Macedonia", a solution agreed with Athens to end a decade-long dispute between Macedonia and Greece, reached through the historic Prespa agreement signed in June.

Greece claims that the term "Macedonia" is part of its cultural and historical heritage and used the dispute to veto Skopje's accession to EU and Nato for years. But the agreement with Greece on the name "Northern Macedonia" will be a break through in the integration process.

Recent surveys have shown that most Macedonians want to join the European Union and Nato and will vote in favour of the name change, but a huge percentage of voters is still undecided, opinion polls revealed. The opposition, currently led by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, also opposes the name change, while the US and the most powerful EU members, including Germany and Austria, have expressed support for the referendum and for the name change. On the contrary, Russia has suggested that it does not see the entry of Macedonia into Nato as a good move.

The process of name change remains tricky. To be valid, at least 50 percent of voters must participate. If the "yes" will prevail, this will "open the door to constitutional amendments, which have to be adopted, in toto, as the 'agreement' imposes, by the end of 2018," Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a professor of Constitutional Law, told ANSA. "Our Constitution prescribes a two third majority vote of the total number of deputies for changes, which the rullng parties do not have now," Siljanovska-Davkova noted. Moreover, the process of constitutional changes and the debates in the Parliament could be "the catalyst for large anti-government protests," a recent Stratfor report warned, recalling similar demonstrations held in June 2018. Protests may be held again also in Greece, led by nationalist groups opposing the name deal.

Taking into account the risks and the potential troubles, plus the 'sacrifice' that may lead to a potential future change of the country's name, will be all of this worth the effort for Skopje? "There is no way out of our isolation except making a compromise with our neighbours," Denko Maleski, a political analyst and first foreign affairs minister of independent Macedonia told ANSA. "This has been clear since 1991, especially in the light of the fact that alliances like the EU or Nato were created to defend the interests of their members. In order to join them - and no other option is viable for Macedonia - we have to make a compromise. In the end I think by making peace with our neighbours and by becoming EU and Nato members we'll benefit much more than by refusing to make this very difficult compromise which has been put in front of the people on the referendum now".

"The agreement imposes unprecedented demands on a sovereign state", underlines in contrast the political analyst Biljana Vankovska, first signatory of a letter of over 70 Macedonian and foreign intellectuals, including the writer Milan Kundera, against the Prespa agreement. "Macedonia - Vankovska adds - is not only supposed to change its name for international but also for all internal purposes. It is derogation of constitutional sovereignty. The Greek parliament will decide if the changes are satisfactory. Economic costs are also huge for an impoverished state." What can we expect from the referendum? According to Maleski, "all options are open, but I hope that people will understand the importance of the moment even though there is a lot of cynicism in Macedonia politics. People are not satisfied with their living conditions in and the paradox is that this is they way to improve our living conditions, by making a compromise and joining the EU and Nato." "People's feelings have been manipulated by nationalist propaganda in the past 30 years.

We'll see what effect this will have on the referendum.

Hopefully there is a new generation that understands the importance of this compromise and the importance of changing course in Macedonian politics. The alternative is a political crisis," Maleski said.

"The referendum breaches the rule of law and Venice commission standards and it is unlikely that the turnout threshold will be met so the government will be delegitimized," Vankovska underlined. Moreover, according to Vankovska, "the tensions will remain regardless of the outcome. Post-referendum Macedonia will need a lot of time to recover, Nato and EU promises will hardly be a remedy".


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