Sunday’s referendum may have ‘failed’ in terms of the turnout – but the government should still press on with trying to get the Greek deal adopted – and the opposition should stop its posturing and support it.
On Sunday, Macedonia held a much-anticipated referendum on the “name” agreement signed in June with Greece, known as the Prespa Agreement.
It was designed with a series of steps to effectuate a compromise between the demands of both sides and construct a viable roadmap for ratification.
The end of the road was Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU, with Greece as a supportive neighbour, no longer as a veto-wielding obstacle.
The government of Zoran Zaev organized a referendum on the issue after achieving an agreement that had eluded all his predecessors. The question was framed in relation to eventual NATO and EU accession, which cannot happen for as long as Greece objects.
The government went out and campaigned – but the referendum failed. It did not reach the necessary turnout rate of 50 per cent for it to be valid, even if a clear majority of those who voted favoured the deal.
The reasons for this failure are several. The electoral roll numbers 1.8 million, which is unrealistic.
The country has not held a census since 2002, but mass migration to Western Europe and elsewhere in recent years suggests that there are far fewer voters today in the country than 1.8 million.
Some suggest that only about 1.4 million citizens currently live in the country, while voting abroad was possible only for those who registered by late-August and were able to travel to one of the embassies or consulates.
The main opposition VMRO DPMNE party also dodged the responsibility of communicating its own position to the public. Several of its prominent members and MPs voted in the Sunday referendum, while others boycotted it.
Given the history of entrenched party-bloc voting in Macedonia, the effect of this failure to articulate a political position comes as no surprise.
An attempt to put together a campaign against turning out to vote was meanwhile orchestrated by several smaller political groups and parties, some with clear links to, and funding from, Russia.
A mild attempt to spread fake news and propaganda was also noticeable, with some pro-Russian politicians from neighboring Serbia calling on ethnic Serbs in Macedonia to boycott the vote.
Finally, the campaign in favour of the referendum evidently failed to reach and/or convince ethnic Macedonian voters, especially in the rural east and south of the country.
While ethnic Albanians voted in large numbers, a disheartening trend among ethnic Macedonians showed that they were not convinced that the agreement offers necessary protections for their identity.
So, what next?
It is important to note that the referendum was advisory, not legally binding. The success of the referendum is not, therefore, a condition for ratifying the agreement with Greece.
However, it is a sticky trap for the governing coalition. The government still needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to pass the constitutional amendments required by the agreement, and it lacks the numbers.
An arduous negotiation process with the opposition and individual members was already underway. But it will be very challenging to succeed now, following Sunday’s result. After the voting ended on Sunday, Zaev stated that he would try to get a two-thirds majority in parliament to ratify the name deal.
One argument in favour of the government’s position is that a huge majority of those who came out to vote, over 90 per cent, overwhelmingly supported the “name” deal.
It would also be simplistic view would be to presume that the majority of citizens who did not vote are against the agreement.
Such a categorical statement would be inaccurate. VMRO DPMNE’s negative ambiguity was clearly reflected in the vote. But, as mentioned earlier, a significant portion of Macedonian citizens have moved abroad for a variety of reasons.
For these people to vote, they would have had to come back to the country, or register to vote in one of the embassies or consulates. As Macedonia has only a limited number of these, it is not realistic to think that all those who did not vote oppose the name agreement.
To say that a clear majority of the citizens are against the deal because they did not vote is simply a misrepresentation.
Difficult as it may be, there should be a final push for this agreement in parliament.
While VMRO DPMNE MPs officially parade their nationalistic rhetoric in public, most of them realize that this deal is as good as it gets – hence their attempt to straddle two views.
They know that VMRO DPMNE has no viable alternative to offer that would get the country a better deal with Greece, which remains the “gatekeeper” for Macedonia’s EU and NATO aspirations.
The current agreement is the only train leading to the destination of EU accession.
If there is any real spirit of patriotism in the VMRO DPMNE party, they will make the difficult political decision to support the name issue. It should be their moral duty.
The idea of a referendum on the name issue did, after all, originate with a previous VMRO DPMNE government under Nikola Gruevski.
Gruevski saw it as a convenient alibi to justify not signing an agreement, if he felt pushed into a corner over the issue by the international community.
Zaev’s Social Democrats adopted an idea that had already become a staple party of the debates on the issue with Greece. So, a hot potato cooked up by VMRO DPMNE was thrown into their lap.
The result of Sunday’s referendum was deeply disappointing. But, failure to ratify the deal will close a window of opportunity that has just – briefly – opened.
For the sake of every citizen of Macedonia who has ever hoped to build a normal life in the country, I hope the tough but necessary decisions are made – and bravely justified to the public. The time for partisan posturing is over. Now is the time for statesmanship
*Ivana Jordanovska was until recently an advisor in the Office of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. She is now a Fulbright Fellow at NYU and has joined the Democratization Policy Council as a senior associate.