SKOPJE -- Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has vowed to keep pushing for a change to the Balkan nation's name to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece despite the failure of a referendum on the move to secure the required 50 percent voter turnout.
Only 36.9 percent of the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters cast ballots in the September 30 non-binding referendum as election officials continued to tally results on October 1.
With more than 98.6 percent of polling stations reporting, it was clear the legal threshold to make the vote valid would not be reached.
But with results also showing resounding support of 91.5 percent among those who did vote, a defiant Zaev said he "will do everything" to forge ahead with changing the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia, as a way to resolve the dispute with Greece and clear the way for Macedonia's possible entrance into NATO and the European Union.
"Let's not play games," he said late on September 30.
"Let's not play with our future. This issue is bigger than anything else, bigger than party interests. We have an obligation to make Macedonia a better place, otherwise the option that remains is early parliamentary elections right away," he added.
President Gjorge Ivanov and opposition members of parliament led a boycott of the name change, calling such a move a "criminal act" which was "clearly" rejected by voters.
"Do not try to change this reality. Do not underestimate the sovereign will of the Macedonian people," Ivanov said in a televised address. "And the reality is that the referendum is unsuccessful."
But like Zaev, Western leaders and the UN chief also tried to put a positive spin on the outcome, glossing over the turnout issue and instead focusing on the resounding "yes" those that did manage to cast ballots gave the accord.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged "all political forces" in Macedonia to proceed with the implementation of the agreement with Greece "through the country's institutions."
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, and the bloc's foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement that "an overwhelming majority of those who exercised their right to vote said yes," to the agreement and their European path.
"The parliament will now be called upon to proceed with the next steps for the implementation of the name agreement by deciding on the adoption of the constitutional changes," the statement, which made no reference at all to turnout, said.
"This is a historic opportunity not only for reconciliation in the region, but also for decisively moving the country forward on its European Union path. It is for all political and institutional actors now to act within their constitutional responsibilities beyond party political lines. The European Union will continue to fully support and accompany the country, its institutions, and all its citizens.
In a joint statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and European Council President Donald Tusk said the agreement between Athens and Skopje created a chance for the country to join the transatlantic and European community, and called on Macedonian politicians to "seize this historic opportunity."
The U.S. State Department too failed to note the turnout issue, saying in a statement it welcomed the results and that it "strongly supports" the full implementation of the accord between Macedonia and Greece, "which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, and prosperity."
Russia, which opposes NATO expansion eastward, said that the low turnout in Macedonia's referendum "does not permit to call the vote successful."
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said that Macedonian voters "preferred to boycott the decisions roughly forced upon Skopje and Athens."
"There is a clear drive to ensure Skopje's entanglement in NATO despite the will of the Macedonian people," it added.
Given the success of efforts to suppress turnout, analysts say Zaev faces a difficult test to muster enough support in parliament to push his agenda through.
Officials in Zaev's government have said they have 71 parliamentary deputies ready to approve a constitutional amendment accepting the name change, short of the two-thirds majority, or 80 votes in parliament, needed to amend the constitution.
Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said that, while the referendum was an obvious "failure and the result disappointing," a "credible argument" could be made that the deal was supported by a majority since the "yes" vote was so high and voter turnout is usually "well below" 70 percent in Macedonia.
"Many more obstacles to overcome," Bieber added in a message on Twitter.
Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said the strongest message in the referendum was sent by those who boycotted or voted against the deal with Greece.
"The fact is that the name agreement did not get the green light, but a stop [sign] from the people," Mickoski said.
Greece noted the "contradictory" results from the vote and said its outcome will require careful moves to "preserve the positive potential" of the deal between Athens and Skopje.
"The climate of nationalism and suspicion, daily fake news, and extreme fanaticism unfortunately do not allow a sober assessment of the great benefits of the agreement," the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Before the name change can take effect, the Greek parliament must also ratify it.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Greece will wait for the Macedonian legislature to pass the necessary reforms to implement the name change before taking action.
"We understand there may be a small delay... Whether [the reforms pass] in January, February or March is not a major issue," he said.
"It would be a shame to have this very important opportunity to resolve an issue troubling the Balkans for nearly 30 years go to waste."
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said there was “broad support” for the agreement with Greece. Hahn said he expects “all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines, in the interest of the country.”
The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.
Greece says the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece, an EU and NATO member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bids to join the two organizations.
In June, Athens and Skopje hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the new name.
Macedonia’s economy is sputtering after a two-year financial crisis that pushed unemployment above 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the Balkans, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.
Analysts say integrating Western Balkan countries such as Macedonia further into European and transatlantic structures is the best way to ensure the stability and development of a region still healing from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.