Macedonia’s Make or Break Deal?
The failure of the referendum in Macedonia should send strong signals to the European Union about the decline of its allure in the Western Balkans.
- The failure of the referendum in Macedonia should send strong signals to the EU about the decline of its allure in the Western Balkans.
- The window of opportunity for the European future of the Western Balkans seems to be shrinking.
- The Western community should take the case of Macedonia and its European future very seriously. The year 2018 is crucial in delivering any progress.
- With a different composition of the European Parliament in 2019, EU enlargement may fall into sleep for a long time, and another deal between Greece and Macedonia could take another 25 years.
The window of opportunity for the European future of the Western Balkans seems to be shrinking. The much-anticipated referendum in Macedonia that was to start that small country’s journey toward NATO and eventually the EU has failed.
In June 2018, the 27-year-old name dispute between Macedonia and Greece was resolved. Both sides agreed on the new name of “Republic of Northern Macedonia.” This solution was found to clarify that it did not imply a claim to Greek territories.
In exchange, Athens would withdraw its veto on its neighbor’s progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. It was deemed a historic agreement for the future of the entire region.
Everyone knew that the signing of the 19-pages long document was just the beginning of ending the dispute. Full implementation requires several difficult steps. One of the most important of these steps was Sunday’s referendum in Macedonia that required more than 50% majority, before it would go to the Greek parliament for ratification.
Low voter turnout
Unfortunately, the low referendum turnout is putting the entire agreement into question, and with it the entire Euro-Atlantic future of the country. Only 37% of the 1.8 million registered voters cast their ballots. The main reason for the low turnout was the call for boycott by the conservative opposition parties led by VRMO-DPMNE, including Gjorge Ivanov, the President of the country. He called the deal “a historical suicide.”
There are allegations that Russia spent money to influence the outcome, mainly by launching a misinformation and disinformation campaign in the social media sphere to defeat the ballot.
For Russia, this meddling comes at a low cost, both economic and political. In a country where the income per capita stands at less than $6,000 and the unemployment rate exceeds 22% (and is double that among young people), it’s not difficult to act as an opportunistic spoiler.
A clear message to push forward
However, with more than 90% of approval for name change among those who voted, the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev claimed that the vote represented “a crystal-clear message to push forward,” and that “the referendum is decided by those who want to decide.”
And indeed, the referendum is consultative in nature, rather than legally binding. While the large popular vote in favor have made it legitimate for Zaev and his government to push the constitutional amendments for the name change forward, approval requires a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
If the prime minister is not able to convince the opposition to vote for the planned changes, early elections will be called in November.
Much is at stake beyond Skopje
The failure of the referendum should send strong signals to the European Union about the decline of its allure in the Western Balkans. It is politically risky for the EU to keep the enlargement process mainly at technical levels. In a still fragile region, one would wish for clear political and strategic commitments.
The refusal of Macedonians to cast their ballot in favor of ”joining NATO and EU and accepting an agreement with Greece to change their name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia” underscores the level of pessimism and skepticism about a credible perspective inside the country itself.
For now, the conservative opposition in Macedonia is claiming a big victory. The same applies to Russia, which openly opposed the referendum since it views it as a further expansion of NATO into what it considers its sphere of influence.
In Macedonia, the name dispute and the EU’s enlargement fatigue have been used for a long time as scapegoats for not pressing with reforms. Meanwhile, “the Russian challenge” has been used to extract concessions from the western partners while paying lip service to serious reform efforts.
The importance of timing
Timing is everything. Significant political risks will increase in the region if the deal is not approved soon in the Macedonian parliament. Chances are that the prospect to escape the three-decade-old trap will close down soon.
One also need to be aware that, even if things are turned around in Macedonia itself, the deal could still fall apart if it is not approved by the Greek parliament, where disagreements even inside the government are highly visible.
The Western community should take the case of Macedonia and its European future very seriously. The year 2018 is crucial in delivering any progress.
The current government in Macedonia has focused on Euro-Atlantic integration as the driver of raising the living standards and attracting investment in the country. Only if and when that happens do the painful internal structural reforms that have to happen soon have a realistic chance of succeeding.
With a different composition of the European Parliament in 2019, EU enlargement may fall into sleep for a long time, while another deal between Greece and Macedonia could take another 25 years.
Editors Note: The views presented are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Marshall Center, DoD, and U.S. and German governments.