Zero hour has passed in the Name Dispute.
Surprisingly low turnout for the September 30 referendum in Macedonia/FYROM to approve June’s Prespes Agreement settling the Name Dispute between Athens and Skopje could well derail the implementation of the agreement. It is also likely that Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev will turn to the ballot box to keep the ratification process alive as the emboldened nationalist opposition hardens its stance on compromises involving changes in the country’s constitution. International supporters of the Prespes Agreement are clearly disappointed by the unwelcome results of this application of democratic principles in Macedonia/FYROM but continue to support Zaev in any decisions he makes moving ahead. In Greece the near-derailment of the agreement (Greece surprisingly has no referendum scheduled for its citizens) threatens to undercut Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ only significant achievement since he came to power in 2015 — a deal made that disregards overwhelming Greek public opposition — and may well hasten elections.
Low turnout will likely trigger new elections in Macedonia/FYROM
A large majority of voters (91.5%) voted for yes but this result was a given from the start. Turnout is recorded at 37%. Even weeks before the referendum, the focus of all domestic parties and foreign visitors had been on the turnout number, considering that a 50% turnout target had been set for the referendum to be considered successful. What is unknown is what kept so many voters away, especially since the large Albanian minority (25-35% of the population) had been viewed as overwhelmingly supportive of the Prespes Agreement. Voter rolls were badly out of date. Unquestionably social media activity supporting some form of abstention/boycott had risen substantially in September, and it is unclear whether foreign (most likely Russian) support or funding for this campaign will be uncovered.
This referendum was labelled as “consultative,” meaning that Zaev can take the strong “Yes” result, and essentially proceed as he wishes on ratification, despite the low turnout which undercuts his position substantially. Zaev said late on September 30 that parliament will need to act, despite the low turnout. “The will of those who voted must be converted into political action in parliament,” he said.
Zaev added that “a better deal with Greece will not and cannot exist. There is no alternative to the EU and NATO membership of the country and there will not be.”
The rubber meets the road, so to speak, when it comes to the next phase, modifying the constitution to include the changes Greece has asked for, as agreed in the Prespes Agreement. These will amend a number of references the Greek side had labelled as “irredentist.” This procedure requires a 2/3 majority (80 MPs) in the Parliament. Going into the referendum, Zaev, whose coalition already has a slight majority in Parliament, was said to be about 10 MPs short of the required level. The true impact of the referendum will likely be seen in the stiffening of the already tough VMRO-DPMNE position on those changes, as previously wavering MPs will now refuse to join Zaev. As an indication of the stiffened resistance Zaev now faces, VMRO-DPMNE’s leader Hristijan Mickoski was quoted as saying “the fact is that the name agreement did not get a green light, but a stop sign from the people.”
Ultimately, Zaev can opt for new elections in an attempt to garner a majority for these constitutional changes in order to save the Prespes Agreement. Analysts are already making estimates of new “grand coalition” scenarios and Zaev reportedly has a plan to accelerate elections so if called soon they could be held before the end of 2018 in order to better dovetail with the Greek 2019 electoral calendar. Zaev reportedly spoke to his Greek counterpart September 30 on several issues, and Tsipras congratulated him for “his decisiveness and bravery in continuing with the implementation of the deal.”
Disappointment in Athens, reactions follow expected lines
The Greek coalition government comprised of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party has long suffered an internal schism over the Name Dispute with ANEL leader and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos staunchly opposed to the Prespes Agreement and promising to block its ratification if it comes to a vote. Vocal as usual, Kammenos actually tweeted on September 30 that the referendum was invalid due to low turnout, even before polling stations had closed. Kammenos noted that the low turnout showed that “68% of citizens cancelled the (Prespes) agreement.”
The Greek Foreign Ministry released a longer and more sober statement. Two key points: “A major portion of society in the neighbouring country backed the agreement. However, a significant portion viewed it with scepticism. Greece respects the decisions of the citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” The Foreign Ministry added: “A climate of nationalism and suspicion, daily fake news and unbridled fanaticism do not allow, unfortunately, for a sober assessment of the major benefits of this agreement, and impede the necessary mutual understanding of peoples, and the development of the cooperation.”
The main Greek opposition party New Democracy, which is widely expected to win the next elections, remains strongly opposed to the Prespes Agreement. Having failed to topple the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition in June in a vote of no-confidence in protest of the deal, the stream of cynical reactions to the embarrassing developments in Skopje is not unexpected, pointing to a “government mess” and highlighting the differing reactions between Kammenos, Tsipras and the Foreign Ministry. New Democracy Spokeswoman Maria Spyraki called for elections as soon as possible and said: “the show must now end.”
New Democracy has not forgotten that Tsipras had hoped the Prespes Agreement would widen intra-party divisions between moderates and nationalist hard-liners, a plan which failed.
Readers will recall that western leaders worked hard to support Zaev and boost turnout for the referendum throughout September, briefly turning Skopje into Europe’s top destination for senior political visitors. The stream of high-level visitors through the capital included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, among many others. Being overwhelmingly in favour of the YES camp, the reactions to the referendum so far reflect a balance between (some) acknowledging the low turnout as well as continuing support for Zaev in this difficult period.
It was, of course, expected that Hahn and Mogherini would respond immediately, being that the referendum was on top of their agenda for September. They issued a joint statement early October 1, two key excerpts: “On September 30, citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had the opportunity to vote for the future of their country. In a peaceful and democratic vote an overwhelming majority of those who exercised their right to vote said yes to the Prespes agreement on the name issue and their European path.”
“The Parliament will now be called upon to proceed with the next steps for the implementation of the name agreement by deciding on the adoption of the constitutional changes.”
— Annemarie Huber (@Huber62) October 1, 2018
For its part the US State Department issued what appears to be a contingency press statement September 30, ignoring completely the low turnout and urging the country to move ahead on implementation of the agreement. “We strongly support the (Prespes) Agreement’s full implementation, allowing Macedonia to take its place in @NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, & prosperity.”
The U.S. welcomes the results of the Republic of #Macedonia’s Sept 30 referendum. We strongly support the Agreement’s full implementation, allowing Macedonia to take its place in @NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, & prosperity. https://t.co/FaBKpi7JaF pic.twitter.com/N9Ik6FyosI
— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) September 30, 2018
At this time no new high-level visits to Skopje in reaction to the referendum have been announced.