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After Its Name-Change Referendum, What's Next For Macedonia?

After The Vote, What Now For Macedonia?
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Macedonia's weekend referendum on changing its name as part of a deal to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece fell short of the 50 percent turnout required to make the nonbinding vote valid.

The name change is part of an effort to clear a path toward Macedonia's eventual admission into NATO and the European Union, and government reaction, as well as that of some key outsiders, appears eager to shed the impression that the setback at the ballot box was anything but a win.

Among the roughly 37 percent of eligible Macedonians who voted, the measure reportedly received strong support, prompting Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to vow to "do everything" to forge ahead with changing the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia.

The situation raises several questions. Here are some of them:

Why was the turnout so low, and what was the intended message of snubbing the vote?

Many voters appeared to stay home after being urged to do so by the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, whose leader, Hristijan Mickoski, said after the vote that the result was a warning from the people that the government should abort the agreement.

Analysts see other reasons as well.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, told RFE/RL that there is also a small group of far-left Macedonians opposed to joining NATO. In addition, he said, "there are quite a few of the eligible voters who don't live in Macedonia anymore and voting for them would be difficult."

Macedonian journalist Xhelal Neziri of the Center for Investigative Journalism SKUP is of the opinion that a majority of those who did not vote wanted to "punish" Zaev's ruling party for failing to keep its election promises, including a pledge to reduce unemployment. Neziri also suggested that foreign influence from countries including Russia, which opposes NATO expansion, might have played a role.

The results among the minority who voted showed resounding support for the agreement -- 91.5 percent -- prompting a defiant Zaev to suggest he could nevertheless seek the required two-thirds majority in the 120-seat parliament for the name change and related constitutional changes by next week. He warned that if rejected by lawmakers, his only option would be to trigger early elections. Other government officials have hinted that he can count on the support of just 71 deputies -- nine short of the two-thirds mark. Can Zaev secure sufficient support among lawmakers?

The odds of Zaev succeeding in parliament are slim but possible, Bieber speculated. "Above all, he will have to convince the opposition VMRO-DPMNE to support such a constitutional change, which seems quite difficult considering their rejection of the agreement." It's not impossible, he said, adding that while "maybe some MPs from the VMRO-DPMNE party will break up to give a two-thirds majority, I think at this moment early elections seem like the more likely outcome."

Would early elections delay or endanger the implementation of the agreement with Greece, which is the paramount requirement for Macedonia's membership in NATO and the EU?

According to Bieber, it's unclear whether a new parliament resulting from early elections would be more likely to ratify the deal.

"The agreement is only implemented if Macedonia ratifies it, and that is something which will require some cooperation from the opposition either before or after the election," Bieber said. "Whether or not that will be the case seems entirely unclear."

Political analyst Mitko Gadzovski, from the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy in Skopje, said early elections could be scheduled for next month, most likely for November 25, as Zaev has indicated.

Zaev, Greece, the European Union, and the United States have hailed the result as a clear indication that Macedonians favor the deal, which would bring one of the poorest countries in the region tantalizingly close to EU and NATO membership. How can the referendum be considered a "success"?

Macedonia's economy is still sputtering after two years of financial crisis, with a 20 percent unemployment rate and a $400 average monthly salary and the public clearly frustrated. So it is unclear that the government can take anything for granted.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said Macedonian "citizens expressed their support for NATO and European Union membership by accepting" the so-called Prespa agreement and urged Macedonia's leaders "to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that he "welcome[d] the yes vote" and urged "all political leaders & parties to engage constructively & responsibly to seize this historic opportunity."

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn cited "an overwhelming majority of those who exercised their right to vote" saying "yes" to the name change and "their European path."

But critics might suggest the government misplaced its faith.

"It's a clear failure because the referendum, legally speaking, is not valid and as a result it has failed," Bieber said. "Now, that didn't mean that there is a clear majority against the agreement. But neither is it a clear mandate because of the failure of the referendum. So it is a failure."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman warned that Moscow was "observing closely and of course think that all the processes should remain within the framework of the law."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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