The referendum on changing Macedonia’s name — a step toward European Union and NATO membership — received overwhelming support from voters on Sunday, according to a preliminary tally.
But with only a little more than a third of eligible voters casting ballots — perhaps the result of a campaign calling on people to abstain from voting — both those in favor of and opposed to the measure claimed victory.
With nearly all ballots processed, voter turnout was 36.87% Monday morning, less than 50%. Of that 91.48 % supported the agreement and 5.64% were against it, according to State Election Commission figures
Supporters of the referendum, including Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, had hoped at least half of voters would turn out to give Zaev the legitimacy to push the constitutional change, part of an agreement with Greece, through Parliament.
Still, Zaev told reporters Sunday night that the citizens of Macedonia had ‘made a rather significant choice.’
‘I, the opposition, and all citizens know that there would not be a better agreement with Greece,’ he said in a news conference. ‘There is no alternative to the EU, NATO membership. Let’s not play with our future and the future of our Macedonia.’
Meantime, opposition party leader Hristijan Micoski said the results show that the referendum was ‘deeply unsuccessful.’
‘Macedonia spoke out today, saying that this referendum will not pass,’ Micoski, whose VMRO DPMNE party encouraged a boycott, said in a statement on Facebook.
Macedonians were voting in a referendum on whether they’re in favor of joining the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance and the EU and accepting an agreement with Greece to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece insists that only its own province of Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, can claim that name, and Greece has blocked its northern neighbor’s previous attempt to join the alliance.
The dispute has been a stumbling block in relations since Macedonian independence from Yugoslavia nearly three decades ago. The agreement on the name change, signed by the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers in June, is the first time a resolution has been within sight.
Authorities had set the turnout threshold at 50 percent, however, the referendum is consultative, which means Zaev can trigger the process of constitutional amendments to rename Macedonia regardless of the outcome.
Following the vote, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement saying that Washington strongly supported “the Agreement’s full implementation” which she said would “allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, and prosperity.”
Supporters of the referendum see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start an economic revival, and Zaev is banking on NATO membership bringing much-neededVladmir Putin investment to Macedonia.
But there was a large and organized disinformation campaign to boycott the vote, according to Goran Nikolovski, director of Macedonia’s Administration for Security and Counterintelligence. Nikolovski told Skopje TV that security services are investigating a systematic attempt to undermine the vote through social media and disinformation.
Russia has been accused by some for leading the social media campaign by using bots that encouraged people to boycott the vote. Its opposition of the Macedonia NATO aspiration has been long-standing and isn’t hidden.
Russia has denied that it meddles in other nations votes.
Powerful voices within the government also urged Macedonia’s citizens to abstain. Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov announced he would boycott the referendum, warning that the country was being asked to commit ‘legal and historical suicide.’
His views reflect the position of the small but loud anti-referendum party United Macedonia, that has close relations to Vladmir Putin’s United Russia Party, according to party leaders.
Its leader Janko Bacev says the West wants to erase Macedonia from the world map and he drummed up support for the boycott in rallies across the country.