Accessibility links

Breaking News

All Eyes On Turnout As Macedonians Head To Polls Over Name Change

Macedonians attend a campaign rally in Prilep on September 26 for a "yes" vote ahead of a referendum on whether to change the country's name to Republic of Northern Macedonia.
Macedonians attend a campaign rally in Prilep on September 26 for a "yes" vote ahead of a referendum on whether to change the country's name to Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Macedonians head to the polls on September 30 in a referendum on a name change that could pave the way for the country to qualify for European Union and NATO membership.

The question doesn't appear to be whether they approve of the move, but whether enough will turn out to vote.

Opinion polls put the "yes" camp at around 70 percent, in a ballot asking Macedonians to approve an agreement its new Socialist government reached with Greece this year to change the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia.

But Macedonian law requires a turnout of at least 50 percent plus one vote for the referendum to be valid and a campaign to suppress turnout among the country's 1.8 million registered voters by the president, opposition politicians, and even murky online sources have cast doubt on the final outcome.

"There is clearly a concerted effort to thwart the democratic rights of Macedonians and delegitimize the referendum vote," the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity said in a statement just days before the vote.

"Macedonians alone must decide what future they want for their country. We urge them to make their voice heard this Sunday. The local authorities, together with the international community, must take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of Sunday's vote, and that no malign action will go unpunished."

High Stakes, Strong Emotions In Macedonia Referendum
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:36 0:00

The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.

Greece says the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece, an EU and NATO member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bids to join the two organizations.

In June, Athens and Skopje hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the name Republic of North Macedonia.

Faltering Economy

Macedonia's economy is sputtering after a two-year financial crisis that pushed unemployment above 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the Balkans, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.

"Changing our name is the price we have to pay if the country wants to join the EU and NATO," says Mirche Chekredzi, head of corporate strategy at the offset and digital printing company Arkus in the capital, Skopje.

"Within the EU there will be no customs barriers, faster deliveries. It would cut a lot of bureaucracy for smaller companies like ours," he adds.

Analysts also say further integrating Western Balkan countries such as Macedonia into European and transatlantic structures is the best way to ensure the stability and development of a region still healing from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

"We must not forget that, if the referendum fails, we will remain the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as I don't believe any other Macedonian politicians will be brave enough to enter this battle," former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told RFE/RL.

"And I think that the international community will completely cool on this issue, so I really think we have to use this opportunity," he added.

Dissenting Voices

Not everyone agrees, however, including President Gjorge Ivanov, who has called the name change a "criminal act" that violates the Balkan country's constitution.

Ivanov has staunchly declared that he won't vote in the referendum, and in a speech to Macedonia's diaspora in the U.S. city of Detroit on September 22 tried to tamp down expectations that a "yes" vote would guarantee EU and NATO accession.

"Even with the adoption of the harmful Greek treaty and [relevant] constitutional amendments, membership in NATO and the European Union will not come automatically," Ivanov said.

If the referendum is successful, the next step would fall on lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment accepting the name change by the end of the year.

Government officials say they have 71 deputies ready to approve the move, short of the two-thirds majority, or 80 deputies, needed to amend the constitution.

Christian Mickoski, the leader of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE, has said that, if the referendum is successful and the majority votes in support of the referendum issue, he expects his party will respect the result.

"The more people will say yes, we want to go forward, we want to join NATO, it will bring us stability, assure our statehood, create better conditions for a successful Macedonia, the easier the political process in the parliament will be," said Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov.

Voting stations open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m., with the first results expected about two or three hours after that.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service