President Gjorge Ivanov has called for voters to boycott an upcoming referendum on Macedonia's name change, saying the country was being asked to commit "historical suicide."
"Voting in a referendum is a right, not an obligation," Ivanov said on September 27 in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
Macedonians are due to go to the polls on September 30 to vote on an agreement its new Socialist government led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev reached with Greece this year to change the country’s name to North Macedonia.
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.
Greece, a NATO and European Union member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bid to join the two organizations.
If the deal goes ahead, Greece will lift objections to Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.
"On September 30, I will not go out and vote and I know that you, my fellow citizens, will make a similarly wise decision," Ivanov told the UN General Assembly.
Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy with an executive government where the power rests in the hands of the prime minister, while the president has a mostly ceremonial role.
Pro-Europe Zaev faces opposition to the name change, mainly from nationalists among the country’s 2.1 million people.
Ivanov, a close ally of the conservative opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, has been a staunch opponent of the deal and called the name change a "noose" and a "flagrant violation of sovereignty."
He has also criticized U.S. and EU officials who have visited Macedonia in recent weeks for suggesting that the name change offers Macedonia's only hope of ever joining NATO and the European Union.
U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of interfering against the name change, while a pro-democracy group said it had uncovered an extensive online effort to suppress voter turnout for the referendum.
The Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, whose members span the political spectrum and include such luminaries as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said the voter suppression effort appears aimed at defeating the September 30 plebiscite.
Recent polls suggest that the online vote suppression effort could have an effect on the referendum's outcome, with over 70 percent of voters currently supporting the name change, but just under 58 percent of voters saying they intend to vote.
“There is clearly a concerted effort to thwart the democratic rights of Macedonians and delegitimize the referendum vote,” the commission said in a statement. “Macedonians alone must decide what future they want for their country. We urge them to make their voice heard this Sunday. The local authorities, together with the international community, must take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of Sunday’s vote, and that no malign action will go unpunished.”
The commission said it has been unable as yet to locate the origin of the apparent campaign to interfere in the Macedonian vote.
It said its social media monitoring tool has detected an increase in automated bots posting messages on Twitter over the past 50 days and an increase in activity of new and existing automated accounts over the past week.
The bots involved in the campaign are sharing posts that support a boycott of the referendum, it said. The commission said the level of political activity seen on Twitter over the Macedonian referendum surpasses what it observed in other recent elections where allegations of outside interference occurred, including the recent Mexican and Italian elections.
The commission said it has also found evidence of a covert financial campaign from individuals in Greece and Macedonia to support anti-referendum groups.