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'Get Out And Vote,' U.S. Senator Tells Macedonians Ahead Of Referendum

U.S. Senator Urges Macedonians To Vote In Name-Change Referendum
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During a visit to Skopje, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson has voiced support for Macedonia's upcoming referendum over former Yugoslav republic's official name change.

"In the end, this is their decision. It is really Macedonians' decision, which is again, let me emphasize: please, get out and exercise your right to vote, and let your leaders know exactly where you stand on this issue," Johnson said in the Macedonian capital on September 9 after arriving from neighboring Greece.

"A very strong turnout is probably the best thing that you can do to support your nation and its ascension into NATO," said Johnson, who heads the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as well as its Subcommittee on European and Regional Security Cooperation.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also traveled to Skopje in recent days ahead the referendum set for September 30.

During their visits, they called on Macedonians to vote in favor of a name change that would open the door to the Balkan country joining the European Union and NATO.

On September 6, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote to his Macedonian counterpart, Gjorge Ivanov, saying, "The agreement and Macedonia's membership in NATO will bolster security, stability, and prosperity throughout the entire region."

The Macedonian and Greek foreign ministers signed a deal on June 17 to rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia -- North Macedonia for short -- and resolve a 27-year dispute between Skopje and Athens.

Macedonian lawmakers later voted in favor of the bill to ratify the agreement, but hurdles remain for the deal to come into effect, including the support of Macedonian voters in the upcoming referendum.

Although nationalists in both countries oppose the compromise, recent polling in Macedonia shows 57 percent favor changing the country's name if it will lead to membership in the EU and NATO. Twenty-two percent said they would vote against the referendum proposal.

A minimum of 50 percent of the electorate must take part in the referendum in order for it to be valid.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on September 9 acknowledged that full implementation of the agreement with Skopje "will not be easy," as it also requires a constitutional change in Macedonia.

Tsipras also said he didn't expect that Greece will be pushed to early elections because of disagreements within his governing coalition over the agreement.

The name dispute between Skopje and Athens dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.

Greece has objected to the name Macedonia, saying it implies territorial claims on the northern Greek region with the same name.

Because of Greek objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP