Macedonia votes on new name in bid to end Greek controversy

SKOPJE: Macedonians cast ballots on Sunday on whether to re-name their country North Macedonia in a bid to end a long-running row with Greece and unlock a path to Nato and EU membership. The vote is an emotional moment for a country that has struggled for recognition of its name since 1991, when the former Yugoslav republic declared independence. At the time, Athens kicked up a major fuss, accusing Skopje of stealing the name of its own northern province, which is also called Macedonia. The dispute dives deep into history with both countries vying to lay claim to Alexander the Great’s ancient empire of Macedon, which spanned their territories.

But in June, Macedonia’s new premier Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a landmark compromise under which Athens would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the EU and Nato in return for a change of name. While the Macedonian government is likely to call any significant majority in favour of the deal a success, the rightwing opposition may question the vote’s credibility if turnout is below 50 per cent. Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and were to close 12 hours later, but after six hours of voting, turnout stood at just 16 per cent, the electoral commission said. The figure is far lower than it was at the same stage in the 2016 elections.

Zaev has billed the referendum as a painful but historic opportunity to break the 27-year-old stalemate. “Today is a beautiful day, a beautiful holiday for the country. Today the citizens are going out to decide on their future,” he said after voting in Strumica, his eastern hometown where he once served as mayor. Voters began trickling into schools and other polling stations around the country shortly after the polls opened. “I hope that the result will be positive. This referendum will change something if it opens the door to Europe and Nato,” said Olivera Argirovska, a 74-year-old retired nurse, after casting her ballot in a high school in the capital Skopje. “It will change things for the youth,” she said.

Few Macedonians are enthused about the new name, saying they have been unfairly bullied by Greece. “I am not happy and I do not know anyone who likes this deal,” said 55-year old Danica Taneska, who admitted voting ‘no’ to the change. But a desire to anchor their future to the West — and the economic prosperity that it could bring — has been a driving force behind the ‘yes’ vote in one of Europe’s poorest nations. “We cannot really say it is fair, but the EU and Nato matter more for all of us, so let’s move forward,” 28-year-old Abedin Memeti said ahead of the vote. The referendum is not binding, but a ‘yes’ majority would give parliament a political mandate to change the constitution. If the deal is backed in the referendum and ratified by two-thirds of MPs, the Greek parliament will be called on to give it the final stamp of approval. — AFP