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Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addresses a march in support of a referendum on changing the country's name and its NATO and EU membership bids in Skopje oon September 16.

Macedonia's capital, Skopje, has been gripped by hope and uncertainty lately, with the country approaching a historic crossroads.

Macedonians vote in a referendum on September 30 on whether to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, a possible step toward resolving a decades-old dispute with Greece, which has a province by the same name and has used the dispute as an obstacle to EU or NATO entry for its postcommunist neighbor.

A breakthrough agreement between Skopje and Athens, reached in June, hangs in the balance.

The carrot, dangled explicitly on the ballot, is the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration.

The referendum is merely “consultative,” so a "yes" result still must be ratified by a two-thirds parliamentary majority before the country could shed the more cumbersome Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia name adopted as a compromise to join the United Nations in 1993.

The name dispute is highly divisive among Macedonians, prompting organizers to link the question on the ballot to the prospect of membership in the European Union and NATO in hopes of boosting the "yes" turnout.

But it is nearly as contentious internationally, with accusations and counteraccusations of improper meddling in Macedonia's affairs.

European leaders have visited the country in the weeks leading up to the vote to urge Macedonians to seize a "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski (center) at a protest against the deal between Greece and Macedonia in the southern town of Bitola in June
VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski (center) at a protest against the deal between Greece and Macedonia in the southern town of Bitola in June

Russia is said to be wary of further Balkan countries joining NATO, particularly since nearby Montenegro recently joined the transatlantic military alliance.

Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak was quick to accuse the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters. Shcherbak said nothing of the anti-referendum Internet trolls that are said to be urging Macedonians to boycott the vote.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on his way to Skopje to urge a "yes" vote, accused Russia of financing “influence campaigns” to undermine the referendum.

Some of the unsupported claims that are circulating in apparent support of a "no" vote include speculation that Google would drop the use of the Macedonian language if the name change is approved.

Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak has accused the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters.
Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak has accused the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters.

The "no" lobby -- some of it anonymous via social media or shadowy websites -- appears to be banking on a boycott, which could render the result meaningless (it requires more than half of the country's roughly 1.8 million eligible voters to turn out) or simply create space for political elements to exploit.

The New York Times reported that new posts are popping up daily on Facebook to encourage people to boycott the referendum in a "disinformation-age battle."

Meanwhile, the nationalist opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, has called on its supporters to boycott the vote.

Others have pointed out that refusing to vote might be counterproductive.

“The boycott only means that you leave others to make the decision for you,” the president of the National Youth Council of Macedonia, Blazen Maleski, wrote on RFE/RL’s youth online column.

Two young pro-government activists addressed passersby at the entrance to Skopje's old town on September 16, with one of them at one point explaining his trust in the prime minister, Social Democratic Union leader Zoran Zaev.

“He didn't enter politics to get rich," he said. "He was already wealthy, as he was a part of a very successful family business. His family produces the best ajvar" -- a traditional vegetable spread based on peppers and eggplant -- "and he grew up selling papers at the market.”

They said their enthusiasm for the name change was not shared by their parents, who they predicted would nevertheless reluctantly vote “yes.”

“They are not happy to be in this situation. They are attached to the name Macedonia," one said. "Their ID card would say that they are from the Republic of North Macedonia, and that sounds strange to them. They are likely to vote ‘yes’ because of us, as our future is at stake.”

Of course, negotiations with Greece will continue in the event of a “yes” vote, and Macedonia may have to make more concessions.

“The outcome of this process depends...on the negotiating and political power of the countries themselves,” academic Taki Fiti, president of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences (MANU), told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit. "Greece has much greater negotiating power."

For many outsiders, it might be hard to understand why the addition of a simple geographic prefix (North) to a country’s name would be so problematic.

Skopje is flooded with referendum posters urging people to vote for the name change and “a European future,” but some Macedonians object to what they regard as the flip side of that coin.

“Europe wants to take away all that we have. They want to take away our name. I was born a Macedonian, and I want to die a Macedonian," Zoran Stojcevski, a Skopje cab driver in his 60s, told RFE/RL recently. "They want to erase our name. They want to ‘civilize’ us. I don't want to be civilized! I just want to stay the way I am, and they can call me primitive if they want. This government is worse than a communist government. They put people in prison if they are against the referendum.”

There has been no evidence of such cases, but the identity fears are real.

Zana, a woman in her 50s, offered a glimpse of that fear while giving a tour of Skopje this month to her British friends.

“It’s not only about the name, they want to take our past away from us," she said. "They want to say that we [Macedonians] were not there [at the time of Alexander the Great]. They are taking away our identity.”

Some things will certainly change if the “yes” vote decisively prevails in the referendum.

The currently nameless equestrian statue in Skopje’s central square has been one of the symbolic battlefields in the dispute with Greece. It was erected as a monument to Alexander the Great -- known in some quarters as Alexander of Macedon -- but many Greeks have sought to discourage Macedonians from considering Alexander to be part of their culture.

If the country’s name change is ultimately approved by both sides, the horseman will once again bear the name of Alexander but with an explanatory plaque that the ancient king is part of “Hellenic” culture.

It is one reflection of the awkward compromises that might be required of Macedonia, in particular.

But for many, that is a small price to pay, given the stakes.

“The name-change deal with Greece must not fail because that would mean a very uncertain future for Macedonia,” former Foreign Minister Professor Denko Maleski told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit.

The failure of the referendum, among other things, would likely deepen divisions in Macedonian society, with many in its ethnic Albanian community -- around one-quarter of the country’s population of 2 million -- enthusiastically in favor of the name change and Western integration.

“The ensuing division [would] closely resemble the Ukrainian situation, which [would] destabilize the country,” Maleski said.

There is notable support for the “yes” vote within the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Pimen, who is widely regarded as a “new wave” priest, said the September 30 that the referendum was a great opportunity.

“We are deciding the future of our country, and we must all hold hands, to overcome our differences and quarrels, and come together to choose a European future for our country. This is a historic opportunity that we must not miss,” Pimen said.

His message incurred an avalanche of insults and hate speech on social media, prompting Pimen to respond that people were free to disagree with him but that he did not approve of the way in which some were expressing their views.

“In Macedonia, we need to learn basic manners first, and only then should we have democracy,” he said.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gestures during a rally in the northern, Serb-dominated part of Mitrovica, Kosovo, on September 9.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic might well have offered up a gift last weekend to critics who believe the aphorism about history not repeating itself but often rhyming.

His speech to a crowd of mostly ethnic Serbs in the divided city of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, on September 9 sparked comparisons with a nationalist outpouring by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in that same location almost 30 years ago, at least among those old enough to remember it.

The resulting storm suggests that even decades later, Kosovo can still make or break a Serbian politician.

Vucic had been expected in Mitrovica for weeks. The town was festooned with his photograph and Serbian flags in eager anticipation of his visit. September 9 was hotly anticipated as the day when Vucic would finally announce his plan to resolve major outstanding issues with Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and to turn the corner in relations with the former Serbian province, which declared independence in 2008.

It didn't happen. Instead, Vucic appeared to take almost everyone by surprise with one brief passage of his remarks, in particular: "Milosevic was a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions, but the outcome [of his actions] was very poor. Not because he wanted it that way, but because our wishes were unrealistic, while we neglected and underestimated the interests and aspirations of other nations. Because of that, we paid a greater price [than others in the region]. We haven't expanded."

His praise in defense of Milosevic set off alarm bells across the region, as some interpreted it as a nod to the notion of "Greater Serbia." Like many nationalists in Serbia, some observers complained, Vucic blames Milosevic for having lost the wars in the 1990s as opposed to having played a role in starting them.

Kosovo's deputy prime minister, Enver Hoxhaj, expressed outrage at the speech in a tweet, drawing explicit parallels between Vucic's words in Gazivoda and Milosevic's performance in Gazimestan three decades ago. The two were "the same," he fumed.

But the apparent defense of Milosevic raised eyebrows -- and attracted arguably harsher comparisons -- farther afield in the Balkans, too.

"I have to admit that I was very surprised," Croatian historian Tvrtko Jakovina told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I feel that Vucic could have chosen his words much better. To say that 'Milosevic had good intentions' after the series of wars that destroyed Yugoslavia and that also cost Serbia dearly, which he referred to, is like saying that Hitler had great ideas for all Germans but, well, because they [the Germans] forgot to take into account that others also exist and may have had their own ideas, it didn't turn out so well."

Asked whether such a collation was fair, Jakovina said he "genuinely can't think of a better comparison."

"Because the man [Milosevic] was in charge of Serbia for years, and during that time was quite literally responsible for 1,001 terrible things that were done and a sequence of destructive wars," he added. "Finally, not content with that, Milosevic was responsible for taking Serbia into war with NATO."

Amid criticism from abroad, in particular, Vucic appeared to walk back some of his language from Mitrovica.

"Everyone who heard my speech in Kosovska Mitrovica could have no doubt that my invocation of Slobodan Milosevic was not glorification but, on the contrary, a serious and responsible critique of [Serbian] policies of that time," Vucic said, adding that some media failed to report his speech in full.

"I said that Milosevic had the biggest support, that he was a great leader, but that the outcome of his policies had been very, very poor."

Serbian essayist and writer Filip David, who founded what was arguably the first Serbian antiwar group at the outset of the Balkan wars, condemned Vucic's Kosovo speech and suggested it risked overshadowing more positive developments in Belgrade's relations with Pristina.

"Frankly, I only remember one sentence of that long-advertised 'historic speech' -- the one about Slobodan Milosevic being a 'great leader.' To say something like that in Kosovo, after everything that happened, totally unmasks this government and casts serious doubt on its commitment to do something important with regard to relations with Kosovo. A lot of demagoguery and very little genuine desire [to achieve progress]," David told the magazine Danas.

Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006)
Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006)

The former Yugoslav then Serbian president, Milosevic was accused of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity but died in a Hague prison cell in 2006, before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) could reach a verdict in his case.

Milosevic's template, well understood in hindsight, was to act in parallel yet seemingly contradictory ways: signing peace agreements while waging war, remaining acceptable to the generals of the Yugoslav Army and the unruly paramilitary units at the same time, and bringing together communists and anticommunists in his nationalist front.

Now, by employing potentially inflammatory language seemingly crafted to stir Serbian nationalists and using subsequent clarifications to reassure critics, Vucic seems to be trying to walk a similarly fine line.

Of course, Milosevic was able to call on the support of an army that advertised itself as the fourth-largest in Europe.

And in other ways the circumstances are vastly different, including the fact that Vucic is no Milosevic.

But U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel warned the Serbian president this week to "stop speaking out of both sides of his mouth" by invoking "peace and reconciliation" while "praising Slobodan Milosevic who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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