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Alexander the Great monument, Skopje, Macedonia © stoyanh / Shutterstock

What Went Wrong in Macedonia’s Referendum?

On paper, the prospect of a positive outcome seemed high, with popular support for Macedonia’s accession into the EU and NATO widespread. 

Macedonia went to the polls on September 30 to vote in a referendum that would potentially change the country’s name and unblock its path to the European Union and NATO. Seems like an easy choice to make. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The small Balkan country’s entry into Western structures has long been blocked by Greece, whose northern region is also called Macedonia. For the past three decades, Athens has accused Skopje of stealing a name long associated with Greek history and antiquity. This changed in June with the so-called Prespa Agreement, whereby Greece would unblock Macedonia’s EU/NATO aspirations if it renames itself the Republic of Northern Macedonia. The terms of the referendum were set.

On paper, the prospect of a positive outcome seemed high. Popular support for Macedonia’s accession into the EU and NATO has traditionally been widespread and even withstood the populist rhetoric of the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, under the leadership of former Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski. While his government paid lip service to resolving Macedonia’s dispute with Greece, Gruevski was determined to build a national identity around “ancient Macedonia” and memories of Alexander the Great, much to the chagrin of Athens.

Following damaging allegations of creeping corruption and nepotism, political protests and a dramatic decline in support, Gruevski was finally replaced in June 2017 by the Social Democrats’ Zoran Zaev. Since then, the current prime minister has toned down the nationalist rhetoric and worked hard to improve Macedonia’s relations with Greece. Doing so undoubtedly laid the foundations for high-level visits from US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other high-profile politicians in the build-up to the referendum.

What Went Wrong?

By most estimates a 91% vote in favor of the name change is more than a resounding success. However, in keeping with referenda around the world, Macedonia’s recent poll required at least 50% of the electorate to turn out for it to be considered valid. Despite the best efforts of senior national and international policymakers, only 37% of eligible Macedonians made it to the polling stations, confirming doubts that the Zaev government would get enough people out to vote.

Concerns were also raised over Skopje’s previous backsliding on updating census information. The last census in Macedonia was conducted in 2002. After this, the country’s more populist-leaning governments were reluctant to update information regarding ethnic minorities. This is particularly true of Macedonian Albanians, who make up approximately 25% of the population. As past governments saw it, knowing more about communities based along the Macedonia-Albania and Kosovo borders might lead to calls for more rights or an upsurge in secessionist tendencies that nearly led to a civil war in 2001.

Skopje’s reliance on questionable census data also overlooks the massive outflow of Macedonians from the country since 2002. An estimated 250,000 people have left one of Europe’s poorest countries over the past two decades. Macedonia’s continued dire economic situation has ensured that only a few have returned. Consequently, the departure of approximately a quarter of the country’s current population might have distorted the quorum. That the Zaev government did not fix the problem ahead of the referendum can be partially explained by its focus and determination to improve ties with Macedonia’s neighbors — Greece and Bulgaria in particular.

From there, the pro-referendum camp seriously underestimated the effectiveness of the No campaign, a disparate group of nationalist opposition parties, anti-EU/NATO activists and also some pro-Russian outfits. The latter group, united under the “Boycott” banner, were supported by a massive propaganda and online disinformation campaign that discouraged people from voting. This made a lot of sense. As there was little to no chance that No campaigners would encourage enough people to vote against in the referendum, they went for the next best thing — kill the quorum. The apparent complacency of the Macedonian population ensured that it was they who were able to claim victory.

Moscow’s Hand?

The high level of disinformation and automated fake news spread via social media during the campaign prompted discussions regarding Russia’s influence on the outcome of the referendum. Moscow is a vocal opponent of Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and views the recent thaw in relations with Greece with suspicion. On the same day that Skopje received its invitation to join the alliance at the Brussels NATO summit in July this year, Athens declared two Russian “diplomats” persona non-grata and blocked entry to Greece for two more. Media reports suggested that they were working to sabotage the Prespa Agreement.

Macedonia also experienced an increase in questionable Russian activities in the aftermath of the 2016 elections where Moscow openly supported nationalist parties opposed to the agreement. This was accompanied by a barrage of “alternative media” and fake news outlets that provided an “alternative view” of the situation inside the country. It is worth noting, however, that Russia had a relatively weak position in Macedonia prior to December 2016. There were very few Russian investments inside the country, trade between both is negligible and Moscow tended to prioritize relations with “bigger” neighbors such as Bulgaria and Serbia. However, following Skopje’s announcement that it had struck a deal with Greece and was also renewing efforts to join NATO and the EU, Russia started to pay more attention.

The most obvious symbol of Moscow’s growing interest in Macedonia is the mock-up party, United Macedonia, which has more than just a passing resemblance to United Russia — even their party symbols look similar. United Macedonia opposes the deal with Greece and membership of the EU and NATO but does support pan-Slavism and close cooperation with Russia and Serbia. The Kremlin’s ideologue Alexander Dugin visited Macedonia earlier this year, not only to offer support to the party, but also to goad the country’s pro-Western majority.

The Road Ahead

Fortunately, United Macedonia is still some way off becoming a major political force inside the country, which gives Zaev room for maneuver. In his first speech after the referendum, the Macedonian prime minister promised to try to push through parliament the constitutional changes needed for renaming the country. This requires the support of two-thirds of MPs, which suggests that the slim majority Zaev’s government currently enjoys will necessitate looking to the opposition to get a deal through. Failure to do so raises the prospect of fresh elections, which Zaev is confident of winning.

Even if all this goes well and Macedonia adopts the constitutional changes, Greece still needs to ratify the Prespa Agreement. Alexis Tsipras’ government is firmly behind the deal and keen to bring Skopje into the EU fold, meaning that the legislation should easily pass through the Greek parliament. However, Athens’ long-term support ultimately rests on the outcome of parliamentary elections slated for the fall 2019. A victory for Greece’s nationalist parties would effectively kill the agreement and keep Macedonia in the EU and NATO waiting room for the foreseeable future.

There’s even the slight possibility that Greece might choose not to ratify the agreement. Should Zaev fail to get the deal through Macedonia’s parliament in the run-up to next September, the current Greek government could pull the plug at relatively short notice, in the name of shoring up popular support. In this event, Skopje and its EU and NATO supporters would have to act quickly to keep Macedonia’s aspirations alive. Failure to do so will only provide unhelpful external actors with opportunities to destabilize the political situation in this fragile but ambitious country.

*[GLOBSEC is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.