Why did Macedonia's name referendum fail?

Opinions are divided on the outcome of the name referendum in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom). While the electoral commission sees the vote as having failed due to the low turnout, Prime Minister Zaev has spoken of a victory. Commentators say both local and international factors played a role in determining the outcome.

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Naftemporiki (GR) /

Ideology of "Macedonianism" won out

The voter turnout was only 35 percent, but 90 percent of those who cast their ballots were in favour of changing the country's name to North Macedonia, and joining Nato and the EU. Macedonia is deeply divided, Naftemporiki explains:

“It's clear that the overwhelming majority of Slavic Macedonians rejects any idea or prospect of a compromise with Greece. The generations of the Tito and Gruevski periods remain tied to the constructed ideology of 'Macedonianism'. ... By contrast the Albanian-Macedonian portion of society - which makes up around 25 percent of the population - sees itself as a strategic ally of the West and its plans in the region. This shows how deep the ethnic-based rift in our neighbouring country is. ... If that doesn't change Fyrom will experience a period of dramatic isolation.”

Webcafé (BG) /

People feared a national disgrace

The Macedonians were seduced by propaganda, writes Webcafé commenting on the result of the referendum:

“Particularly in the eyes of the older generation, the name change is tantamount to treason. They are deeply convinced of this, which is hardly surprising considering that they have been fed extremist nationalist slogans and injected with fears that the other Balkan countries will want to humiliate and ridicule Macedonia. [The opposition party] VMRO-DPMNE, Russian Internet trolls and the media had set themselves the goal of convincing people that the referendum would bring shame on the country because it meant that it would give up its name without the Macedonians receiving anything in exchange.”

The Times (GB) /

Kremlin once again spreading disorder

The Times explains who had an interest in the referendum failing so that Macedonia's integration into the West would become more complicated:

“It was about spheres of interest, the limits to Moscow's influence on Europe's borderlands, and the power of attraction of western institutions. … A great deal of spycraft and social media manipulation has gone into blocking the western stabilisation of the Balkans. Facebook pages have been urging a boycott of the referendum and plainly false information mimics other Kremlin attempts to disrupt democratic processes. … Views may be divided in the West about the merits of expanding the EU and Nato into the Balkans, but one thing is clear: Russia has a strong interest in spreading disorder on Europe's borders.”

Izvestia (RU) /

Zaev reframing result as a pro-Nato vote

Commenting in Izvestia, political scientist Igor Pshenichnikov finds it strange that the Macedonian leadership is trying to sell the referendum as a success despite indications to the contrary:

“Prime Minister Zaev said pathetically that the majority of Macedonians believe 'the Republic of Macedonia should accept the agreement with Greece and become member of Nato and the EU'. This is like the theatre of the absurd. Firstly, the referendum cannot possibly be described as valid. Secondly, 90 percent of the one third of the electorate who actually voted is being called a 'majority' that was supposedly in favour of Macedonia joining the EU. ... The key beneficiaries of a 'positive' referendum outcome are the US and Nato, first and foremost the Americans. Washington has long been positioning itself strategically in the Western Balkans.”

Delo (SI) /

Not an unsolvable conflict

Delo takes a positive view of the situation despite the failed referendum:

“In these times when nationalism is on the rise in Europe, and after decades of futile discussion about national identity in the Balkans, the compromise agreement between Macedonia and Greece could be a model for how conflicts can be solved peacefully and through dialogue. It would become clear that no conflict is unsolvable as long as one can rely on diplomatic creativity and political will. The Balkans could thus send the European states that are keen on building walls the message that one can also build bridges.”

Kapital (BG) /

The EU must exert pressure

Capital takes a look at what may happen after the failed referendum:

“The hope now is that pressure from Macedonia's Western partners will tip the scales. They already played a key role in the resignation of ex-prime minister and [opposition party] VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, who had led Macedonia into isolation and nationalism. One of the conspiracy theories now is that VMRO-DPMNE will try to buy Gruevski's release with the promise of supporting the ratification of the agreement with Greece. Gruevski has already been sentenced to two years in prison and could face an even longer sentence. So whatever happens, the battle over the agreement and Macedonia's future won't end with the referendum. On the contrary, it has only just begun.”

Protagon.gr (GR) /

Greek policies will be determined in Skopje

Website Protagon describes the consequences of the referendum for Greece's policies:

“Our neighbours have let themselves be led by their emotions. ... The question was whether they want to join Nato under the name 'Northern Macedonia'. Those who cast their ballot supported this. But most voters acted as if they hadn't heard the question. ... Political life in Greece will now be influenced to a large extent by the developments in Skopje, where foreign embassies interfere in these developments. ... Everything that goes on in Athens over the next few months will be contingent on the actions of [Macedonian prime minister] Zaev.”