NATO welcomes Macedonia referendum 'yes’ vote, but low turnout complicates membership bid

4 October 2018

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) can only become a member of NATO if it implements the 17 June accord with Greece to change the country’s name, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said. Although the agreement won overwhelming support (around 91 per cent of the vote) in a referendum in the FYROM on the 30 September, it failed to hit the 50 per cent turnout required for the referendum result to be valid – the turnout in the most historic and divisive poll in the country since the nation declared independence in 1991 was just 36.9 per cent.

FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he would press on regardless with a vote in parliament to endorse the change of name to the ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ but an early election at the end of November might now prove necessary, potentially derailing the whole plan due to a tight timeframe.

While the referendum was formally advisory, Macedonian MPs had pledged to abide by it. But the low turnout means they are now free to vote against the name change, and the nationalist opposition, which had campaigned heavily for a boycott of the plebiscite, has 49 seats in the 120-seat parliament—enough to block the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. Also opposed to the deal is the republic’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, who described the referendum and the dilemma it posed during a recent address to the UN as “historical suicide”.

“It is now in the hands of politicians in Skopje to decide on the way forward,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU President Donald Tusk said in a joint statement. “We encourage them to seize this historic opportunity”. Germany’s EU minister Michael Roth said that implementing the name agreement was crucial, saying that Macedonia’s future was in Europe: “Go for it!,” he said.

Similarly, the United States welcomed the outcome of the vote. “The United States welcomes the positive results of Macedonia’s consultative referendum in which the citizens of Macedonia accepted the Prespa Agreement between Macedonia and Greece”, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement. “We strongly support implementing this agreement and stand by the government in Skopje as they ultimately determine their country’s fate during this historical moment”. US Defence Secretary James Mattis while in Macedonia last month to show US support for the country’s NATO bid, accused Russia of attempting to interfere in the election, saying there was “no doubt” Moscow was funding opposition to the name change.

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said, “We hope that Mr. Zaev’s initiative for a constitutional reform will be successful”. “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”, he added.

Russia, which opposes NATO’s eastern expansion, said it expected the law in Macedonia to be respected. Some analysts blame a Russian disinformation campaign for the low voter turnout during the referendum, which was monitored by more than 500 foreign observers. Simon Tisdall (The Guardian newspaper), for example, concludes that, “As elsewhere in Europe, Russia’s influence campaign in Macedonia exploited and complemented rightwing nationalist-populist narratives based on notions of identity, race and the perceived threat of an overbearing EU. And it remains unclear whether Moscow’s actions tipped the balance”. Similarly, Asya Metodieva (in a blog post for the German Marshall Fund) claimed that, “For a short time ahead of the vote, Macedonia’s information landscape was saturated with distorted and polarizing narratives, following the well-known recipe from recent election campaigns in other countries”, without solely attributing foreign interference to Moscow.

The country's new constitutional name was due to open the way for Macedonia's accession to the EU and NATO, which has long been blocked by Athens over concerns that the neighbouring country might have territorial claims to Greece's own region of the same name. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO invited the FYROM to join the alliance as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue had been reached.

In June, Macedonia signed a deal with Greece that was intended to see its name changed to the Republic of North Macedonia. After the announcement, Greek officials promised to withdraw formal objections to Macedonia’s membership in both NATO and the EU. At the July Brussels Summit, NATO leaders formally invited Macedonia to start membership talks, with the condition that membership cannot be completed until the name deal with Greece is fully implemented (para 63 of the Summit Declaration).

The protocol for NATO membership had been due to be signed in January 2019, meaning that Macedonia would have started to participate in NATO structures—but without the right to vote. After signing the protocol for membership, ratification in all 29 parliaments of the NATO member states is required, which was expected to take about 12 months, after which Macedonia would become a full member of NATO.