The future of Macedonia hung in the balance on Sunday as citizens voted whether to rename their country in a referendum seen as decisive for the western orientation of the strategic Balkan state.
Macedonians streamed into polling stations under sunny skies to cast ballots in a plebiscite whose result will determine if the former Yugoslav republic adopts the name North Macedonia and is put on a path to EU and Nato membership.
Turnout is paramount and, voting early on Sunday, the prime minister, Zoran Zaev, urged people to ignore appeals for a nationwide boycott.
“I call on everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations,” he said, casting his ballot in the south-eastern town of Strumica, where he previously served as mayor.
“I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multi-ethnic nature of this country and [its] political unity, no matter which party citizens come from.” By 5pm, two hours before polls closed, turnout stood at 29.1%, with political analysts predicting renewed political crisis and possible riots by the end of the night.
No vote has been as historic – or imbued with such sentiment – since the country declared independence in 1991. The referendum comes against a backdrop of polarisation, potentially explosive emotion and Russia reportedly stepping up clandestine efforts to dash Macedonia’s embrace by the west. Working in unison with hardcore nationalists bent on boycotting the vote, Moscow has openly voiced distaste for the deal with Greece.
Until the accord’s announcement in June, Athens had vowed to block its neighbour’s accession to both the EU and Nato, protesting that – without a geographical qualifier – the name amounted to appropriation of its own cultural heritage and territorial ambitions.
Within the borders of the landlocked republic, few issues have been as divisive. Many Macedonians argue that, with their country’s name also conveying a profound sense of identity, being asked to change it is tantamount to existential annihilation.
“My first name is Makedonska,” said a hotel employee as she made her way to a polling station in a local school in central Skopje. “What are they [the Greeks] going to to do? Ask me to change that?”
Addressing the UN last week, the republic’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, described the referendum and the dilemma it posed as “historical suicide”. The former university professor has openly asked his fellow citizens to boycott the vote.
Although Zaev’s social democrat government has described the plebiscite as “consultative”, a low turnout would make it almost impossible to push the name-change deal through parliament, where it must receive overwhelming support if constitutional changes are to be ratified.
The nationalist main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which has denounced the deal and is vehemently opposed to rewording the republic’s constitution, would find it much easier to resist ratification if fewer voters than expected backed the accord. The party’s leader, Hristijan Mickoski, appealed to Macedonians to “listen to their hearts” when they woke up on Sunday.
The prospect of securing a majority turnout has been further hampered by an electoral list dramatically trimmed by young people emigrating in search of work. Of the 1.8 million currently on the voting list, an estimated 600,000 have moved abroad but according to officials have failed to deregister.
In such circumstances, the outcome to great degree will hinge on the participation of Macedonia’s large ethnic Albanian community, which is – at about 25% – its biggest minority.
“We don’t have the emotional baggage of Slav Macedonians over the name issue,” said Petrit Sanagini, an ethnic Albanian, as he went to vote with his wife and baby daughter. “This is a compromise we feel we have to make to move our country forward towards a future of prosperity and security. It’s a historic day, a very special day. Our hope is that everyone will vote.”
More than 500 foreign observers are monitoring the plebiscite. In addition to EU and western officials, the referendum is being watched closely in neighbouring Kosovo, where fierce opposition to the prospect of territorial adjustments with Serbia spurred thousands to take to the streets on Saturday. To the consternation of the multi-ethnic territory’s Albanian majority, Moscow has backed the idea of land swaps.
“We very much want Macedonians to accept this deal and join Nato,” said Albin Kurti, the opposition politician whose self-determination movement, Vetëvendosje, organised the protests. “It will deter Russian ambitions and interference in the region,” he told the Guardian in his Pristina office. “And that could not come at a better time.”