SKOPJE -- A referendum on changing Macedonia's name as part of a deal to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece won overwhelming support on September 30 but failed to secure turnout of 50 percent required to make the nonbinding vote valid.
Early on October 1, with ballots from more than 98.6 percent of polling stations counted, the official results showed 91.5 percent of voters approving the deal to change the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
But in the face of a boycott called by opponents of the name change, turnout stood at just 36.9 percent of Macedonia's 1.8 million eligible voters -- far from the massive support that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's government had hoped for.
"On this referendum, it is clear that the decision has not been made," State Election Commission chief Oliver Derkoski told reporters in Skopje late on September 30.
Zaev supports the name change as a way to resolve the dispute with Greece and clear the way for Macedonia’s possible entrance into NATO and the European Union.
Despite the low turnout, Zaev said a “vast majority” of voters supported the name-change deal.
He declared the ballot a "success for democracy and for a European Macedonia" and pledged to press on with a vote in parliament.
"The will of those who voted must be converted into political action in parliament," he told a news conference after polls closed, threatening to call snap elections should opponents block the constitutional name change in parliament.
But analysts say the deal will face more difficulty in parliament than if turnout for the nonbinding referendum had topped 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party said that the strongest message in the referendum was sent by those who boycotted or voted against the agreement with Greece.
"The fact is that the name agreement did not get the green light, but a stop [sign] from the people," Hristijan Mickoski said.
Opponents to the deal started celebrating while balloting still was under way, chanting slogans outside the parliament building in the capital, Skopje.
No major problems were reported on voting day.
Greece's Foreign Ministry 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 ministry said in a statement.
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, took to Twitter to congratulate “those citizens who voted in the consultative referendum and made use of their democratic freedoms.”
Hahn said there was “broad support” for the agreement with Greece and Macedonia's “Euroatlantic path,” adding that 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 U.S. State Department said 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.”
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 adopted the name Republic of North Macedonia.
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.
“It is my duty to make my voice heard,” said 91-year-old Velika Novevska, a pensioner from Novaci. “We are voting today for the younger generation and for the benefit of the country.”
"Changing our name is the price we have to pay if the country wants to join the EU and NATO," said Mirche Chekredzi, head of corporate strategy at the offset and digital printing company Arkus in the capital, Skopje.
"Within the EU there will be no customs barriers, faster deliveries. It would cut a lot of bureaucracy for smaller companies like ours," he added.
Analysts also say further integrating Western Balkan countries such as Macedonia 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.
"We must not forget that, if the referendum fails, we will remain the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as I don't believe any other Macedonian politicians will be brave enough to enter this battle," former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told RFE/RL.
"And I think that the international community will completely cool on this issue, so I really think we have to use this opportunity," he added.
Not everyone agreed, however, including President Gjorge Ivanov, who called the name change a "criminal act" that violates the Balkan country's constitution.
Ivanov staunchly declared that he would not vote in the referendum, and in a speech to Macedonia's diaspora in the U.S. city of Detroit on September 22 tried to tamp down expectations that a "yes" vote would guarantee EU and NATO accession.
"Even with the adoption of the harmful Greek treaty and [relevant] constitutional amendments, membership in NATO and the European Union will not come automatically," Ivanov said.
Government officials had said they have 71 deputies ready to approve a constitutional amendment accepting the name change, short of the two-thirds majority, or 80 deputies, needed to amend the constitution.