Referendum on Changing Country's Name and Constitution
September 30, 2018
- Gained independence in September 1991 following the collapse of Yugoslavia; adopted the name Macedonia which Greece rejected because of its northern province named Macedonia. Greece was concerned the new republic harbored greater territorial ambitions.
- To mitigate tensions with Greece and gain recognition and entry into the UN, the interim name of the country became the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
- Following 27 years of tension and stalled negotiations, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced an agreement (the Prespa Agreement) on June 17 to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
- The Macedonian Parliament approved the country’s new name following the agreement by a vote of 69 to 40. Prime Minister Zaev, leader of the Social Democratic coalition (SDSM), supports the new name but the largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, the party of Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, opposes the name change and is advocating a boycott.
- Official referendum question: Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?
- 50% voter turnout needed for referendum to be valid. Numerically, over 903,000 of the 1.8 million registered voters must support.
- Polls indicate Macedonians will likely support the agreement (currently by 70%) if the 50% threshold is met.
- The referendum is officially non-binding. If the 50% threshold is not met, it could be difficult to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution to reflect the new name.
- If Macedonia changes its constitution, the Greek parliament will then vote on the agreement.
Impact on U.S. and Transatlantic Interests
- If the constitution is changed, and the agreement is approved by the Greek parliament, Macedonia would have a clear path to join NATO (it was officially invited to join during the July 2018 NATO Summit), making it NATO’s 30th member. The name change should also encourage greater movement toward its membership in the EU.
- U.S. officials have expressed strong support for the name change; Secretary of State Pompeo met with Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov on August 21 to encourage support for the referendum; on September 17, Secretary of Defense Mattis traveled to Skopje to offer U.S. support for Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. He also warned that Moscow is supporting pro-Russian groups to defeat the referendum which could make it difficult for Macedonia to join NATO.
- Resolving the name dispute will promote stability and encourage greater economic integration in an increasingly fragile region.
Key Issues to Watch
- The referendum has emboldened nationalistic forces in Macedonia led by small, pro-Russian political party United Macedonia.
- There is growing concern that Russian malign influence and disinformation will dampen voter turnout for referendum; Russia is against Macedonia and other Western Balkan nations from joining NATO and EU. As the alleged coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016 demonstrates, the Kremlin will go to great lengths to destabilize a NATO-aspirant country.
- Russian malign influence targeting the name change has already been active in Greece where two Russian diplomats were expelled in July after being accused of efforts to bribe Greek state officials and intervening in internal affairs related to the name issue.
- Greek Prime Minister Prime Minister Tsipras faces opposition to the agreement at home as the country prepares for parliamentary elections next year; protests against the name change are common in northern Greece; Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy Party (who currently leads in the polls), opposes the deal.