Everything you need to know about the referendum in FYR Macedonia

John visited the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a member of the European Parliament-FYRM Joint Parliamentary Committee (pictured above) during the referendum campaign. Here he explains the outcome of the referendum 

Yesterday (Sunday 30 September 2018) there was a referendum in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The issue at had was whether or not the people wished the country to join NATO and the European Union and in order to do so, change the name of the country to ther Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Why a single question?

Because the issues are inherently linked. While the country is called ‘Macedonia’ neighbouring Greece would veto any progress on EU membership - so, ‘no change, no chance’ as they say.

What does it have to do with Greece?

Well, nothing really, but the fact is that there is a region of Greece called Macedonia and Greece believes that while there is a country next door with the same name it implies a territorial claim over their bit. It doesn’t really matter how ridiculous this sounds - it’s a fact. In the meantime the Greeks will stop any progress just because they can.

Why does changing the name help?

Change the name, drop the claim is the way enough Greeks see things. So Northern Macedonia is OK - like Northern Ireland. So the ‘deal’ between the two governments was that so long as Macedonia changed its name then Greece would drop its opposition to their progress into the EU.

Does that mean everybody is happy now?

Of course not, this is politics! On both sides of the border the opposition parties complained that the deal was a greate ‘betrayal’ of the ‘nation’ and seek to score points against the government by proving that they are ‘more Greek/Macedonian’ than the other lot while not proposing any solutions other than more stalemate. 

So what was the result?

94.8% Yes.

So that’s sorted then?

Er, not quite. The referendum rules say that unless there is a 50% turnout then the result has no status. The turnout was 36.9%. 

Why was the turnout so low?

First of all there aren’t as many Macedonians as the electoral role suggests - at least not actually in Macedonia. According to the register there are 1.8 million - so over 900,000 are needed for a 50% turnout. But the number actually in the country who could actually vote is much lower than that - maybe about 1.5 million, though nobody can say for sure - that means the actual turnout required to make 50% on paper is more like 60%-65%. This wouldn’t be a problem if everybody who was against the deal had actually turned out and voted ‘no’ but some opposition politicians called for a boycott and others refused to take a position - including the leader of the opposition. 

Those against the deal couldn’t win, but they could bring the turnout down thus sabotaging the referendum.

Back to square one then?

Not exactly. First of all the referendum was advisory anyway - the real decision is down to Parliament (the Sobraine). That requires a two thirds majority to change the constitution. 

Will the government go for it?

I expect so, and PM Zoran Zaev has said as much. The result was so overwhelmingly pro the deal that can argue a mandate for changing the constitution. Resolving the name dispute and moving toward EU membership is the government’s flagship policy, so they may as well get on with it.

How so?

If you assume the voters needed to get to a 50% turnout had all turned out and voted ‘no’, the ‘yes’ vote would still be over 67%, so the Government is highly likely to press ahead with the vote to change the constitution and if it doesn’t get the necessary two-thirds majority then it will probably call a general election.

And will it get the two-thirds majority?

Hard to say. The Government is made up of the Social Democrats and a number of parties representing ethnic minorities, most significantly the Albanians. They are around nine votes short of what’s needed, so some opposition MPs will need to back them. Had they achieved the 50% then enough of the opposition would have voted with the Government.

Could they be persuaded?

A hard core definitely not. There is a lot of ‘you have betrayed the blood of my Grandfather’s sisters first cousin’ stuff around. However there may be enough opposition members open to persuasion. Some say that there are a number of opposition MPs who are under investigation for corruption who could find their charges/investigations dropped.

A bit dirty then?

About as dirty as a mud wrestling in a vat of treacle.

So who are the opposition and what do they want?

VMRO-DPMNE are the main opposition party - which is a bit of a vowel-free mouthful. They want to be back in power. They are a right-wing party who came out of the independence movement when Yugoslavia disintegrated. They see themselves as the Macedonian nationalist party but some see themselves as nearer to the European Christian Democrat parties, and their allies in the EU are the European People’s Party, so they are a fairly broad church. Their leadership is trying to keep their party together and have been looking for a fence to sit on during the referendum, meanwhile a hard core allied to the former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, who is up before the beak facing a two year sentence on corruption charges, are closer to Hungary’s Viktor Orban than to Jean Claude Junker. I’m not saying they are totally corrupt but I suggest taking a look at the Presidential Palace that Gruevski built! Some say the VMRO current leader, Hristijan Mickoski, would have been happy if the 50% turnout had been reached. He said he would back ‘the will of the people’ and that would have got VMRO-DPMNE off the hook. Now he’s probably going to lean the other way but won’t offer any other solution to the problem as there doesn’t seem to be one.

Anything else we should know?

There are a few smaller ultra-right parties including one that is openly pro-Russian and anti-EU. They were pro-boycott.

What does it have to do with the Russians?

Very little, but they don’t want Macedonia in NATO and they don’t want NATO/EU influence extending further into the region. They see the Macedonians as ‘Slavs’ and themeselves as ‘Slavic’, along with the Bulgarians, the Serbs, Montenegro, etc. In the greater scheme of things, however, Macedonia doesn’t matter very much. It has about the population of Hampshire, is somewhat poor and doesn’t add much to NATO - the Russians are messing around mainly because they can. 

Where does it leave Greece?

Twiddling their thumbs really. The Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras has at least tried to settle things. Right of centre New Democracy say they will oppose any settlement as will the various far-right/openly fascist parties like Golden Dawn but they have no other answers to propose either. It is fair to say most Greeks don’t much care, but those in the north of Greece care quite a lot - so there are votes to be won. The ball is, however, firmly in the Macedonian court.

When will it end?

Who knows? If they government gets its two-thirds majority and Greece then approves the deal too, The Republic of Northern Macedonia will be invited to join NATO and accession talks with the EU will start, though it will be a long time before they come to fruition. If not then expect new elections - the government seems fairly popular right now and it might just get its supermajority. Otherwise there is no other proposition to end the impasse - as someone said to me on my last visit, “We don’t fight the old battles of World War 2 here, we’re too busy fighting World Ward 1”.