Low turnout cast doubt over the results of a referendum in which Macedonian voters overwhelmingly backed a deal to change the country’s name to North Macedonia and clear a path for the country to join the West’s most powerful clubs.
With nearly all of votes counted on Sunday, about 91% backed the agreement reached with neighboring Greece in July. But only around 37% voted at all, showing the lack of enthusiasm for a national name change as the condition for joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union.
The result is a blow to the U.S. and the EU, which wanted stronger public support there. The West sees Macedonia’s EU and NATO entry as a vital step toward stabilizing a region in which the West and Russia have increasingly vied for influence.
To complete the ratification of the July agreement, Macedonia’s parliament has to change the country’s constitution to reflect the new name, which requires a two-thirds majority of lawmakers. The current coalition government holds 67 of Parliament’s 120 seats and has to rely on opposition.
The weak turnout makes it harder for Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to muster enough support in Parliament to back the amendments needed to complete the deal. He said he would immediately call an early election if they failed to receive the required two-thirds majority.
“I am determined to take Macedonia into the European Union and NATO,” Mr. Zaev said, adding that no better deal can be reached with Greece.
“There is a lot of invested interest here; nobody would want to give this up and keep Macedonia locked down for another 20 years,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a Southeast Europe scholar at the London School of Economics. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle; solving this would set a good example and would be a great step forward to then look into the next thorny issues in the region.”
Those issues include a divided Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a Serbian enclave that is largely autonomous. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, and neither can join the EU until that disagreement gets settled
Macedonia became an independent country in 1991, emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia. Greece, also home to a region named Macedonia, has strenuously objected to the name and other adopted symbols, accusing its smaller neighbor of coveting Greek territory and heritage and has vetoed its membership prospects in the NATO and the EU.
Its pro-Western government took over in May 2017 with the promise to reach a deal with Greece and move Macedonia closer to the EU.
“The Russians had an ability to play a disruptive role in the area,” said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, an international-relations think tank. “This is an opportunity to open a new chapter that allows them to go to NATO and the EU.”
Under heavy diplomatic pressure from the U.S., Germany and EU authorities, Mr. Zaev in July signed a deal with his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, that ended the dispute.
Even though the government considered the referendum advisory and nonbinding, Macedonian law requires a majority of a 50%-plus-one-vote turnout in order for it to be valid.
The main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party and President Gjorge Ivanov, who have repeatedly denounced the deal, refrained from supporting a “no” vote, but they called for a boycott of the referendum.
“Macedonia has spoken today—Macedonia said—the deal is off. We have seen a deeply unsuccessful referendum,” said VMRO-DMPNE President Hristijan Mickovski, rejecting Mr. Zaev’s appeal for the party to respect the outcome and back the deal.
Even before the polls closed, opponents of the deal celebrated the tepid participation outside Parliament.
“I welcome the yes vote in Macedonia’s referendum. I urge all political leaders and parties to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted. “NATO’s door is open, but all national procedures have to be completed.”
Mr. Zaev will seek whether he can get the necessary support and will then call national elections for as early as November, which he hopes will boost his strength in Parliament.
If Mr. Zaev ratifies the deal, then Greek lawmakers would need to do so as well. The nationalist junior coalition partner in Greece’s left-led government opposes the deal, and its ratification could prompt political upheaval and even snap elections there as well.
The Greek foreign ministry called Sunday’s outcome contradictory.
“A large part of the society of the neighboring country has supported the agreement. But a considerable part of it treated it with skepticism.”
Panos Kammenos, leader of Greece’s junior coalition party, said in a tweet that the referendum was invalid because of low turnout.
Write to Nektaria Stamouli at firstname.lastname@example.org