Macedonia was a rung higher on the ladder to European Union and NATO membership on Monday after easily defeating a referendum bid to block a law giving its Albanian minority more rights.

Nudged by the United States and Brussels, most Macedonians stayed away from the polls on a rainy Sunday, dooming what the West had viewed as a retrograde step.

Independent monitors said turnout was 26.3 percent, barely more than half the 50 percent needed for the referendum to be valid.

Albanian opponents of the referendum welcomed the result.

"The people have demonstrated they are willing to live in a multiethnic state which promotes European values and concepts," said Emira Mehmeti of the Albanian party in the Socialist-led coalition government.

The government is committed to gaining membership in NATO and the E.U., which has required Macedonia to respond to 3,000 questions before talks about membership in the bloc can begin.

In a boost to moderates, the U.S. government last week recognized the country's chosen name, Republic of Macedonia, rather than the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, overruling years of resistance by Greece, which said the name implied claims on its territory. There is a Greek region called Macedonia.

The State Department called the move a reward for progress in Macedonia, but the timing was hardly accidental. The E.U., Macedonia's main source of aid, had also left no doubt about the result it was hoping for in Sunday's ballot.

Organizers of the vote alleged massive fraud. But the leader of Macedonia's main opposition party, Nikola Gruevski, tacitly conceded failure. About 500,000 people had backed the referendum out of 1.7 million eligible voters, he asserted, and that was a large enough number for the government to "hear the voice of the people."

The law at issue was a key part of the Western-brokered Ohrid peace plan that quelled an Albanian insurgency after seven months of clashes with government forces in 2001. The West viewed implementation of the plan as too slow.

The accord makes Albanian an official language in areas where Albanians represent more than 20 percent of the population. Street signs in the capital will be in Albanian as well as Macedonian. Symbolically, the plan makes Albanians full partners in Macedonia, a status many felt they had long been denied. Opponents say the measures will split the country.