Then, this summer, the two countries struck a potentially historic deal: The smaller country would rename itself North Macedonia, and Greece would drop its objections to bringing its neighbor into the E.U. and NATO fold. Macedonian voters went to the polls Sunday to vote on a referendum that would approve the agreement.
But while the results overwhelmingly endorsed the compromise with Greece, only about a third of eligible voters cast a ballot. That fell short of the required 50 percent turnout that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev — leader of the “Yes” campaign — had hoped would confer popular legitimacy on the move. Zaev hailed the vote’s success, but he now faces an uncertain fight with the opposition in parliament.
The low turnout was seen as a blow not only to the efforts of the “Yes” camp, but also its vociferous backers in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. Over the past month, a train of European dignitaries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, came through Skopje, the Macedonian capital, urging voters to seize a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Former U.S. president George W. Bush, who called for Macedonia’s entrance into NATO in 2008, released a letter last week beseeching Macedonians to “write a new and more hopeful story” for their country. “History’s greatest alliance for freedom is holding a place for the land you love,” Bush wrote, “and I look forward to the day that the United States of America proudly welcomes the Republic of North Macedonia as our newest ally, the 30th member of NATO.”
Instead, the vote in Macedonia underscored broader divisions across Europe and the ambivalence many people feel about its major institutions. A center-right, nationalist opposition party pushed a boycott of the vote, and the country’s president, Gjeorge Ivanov, had suggested the name change would amount to “historical suicide."
In remarks made on Monday, Ivanov said “the silent majority had decided,” echoing rhetoric once used by President Trump. He then directly referred to Trump’s speech at the United Nations last week, where the American president once more thumbed his nose at the liberalism of the international community. “A few days ago,” said Ivanov, “U.S. President Donald Trump said freedom, peace and democracy are possible only in sovereign and independent countries. Yesterday the Macedonian people showed sovereign will.”
Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official who worked on the Balkans, said the boycott could be interpreted as “a sour grapes moment” for Zaev’s opponents, many of whom are pro-E.U. and would have few qualms backing the referendum in a different political context. But the partisan bickering in Skopje may have exposed a deeper dysfunction.
“What’s at stake is not simply whether Macedonia gets into NATO or the E.U. But it’s also a potential vote of confidence in those institutions and democracy,” Farkas said in a phone call with reporters. “This outcome thankfully is not an out-and-out negative outcome. But it does raise a lot of questions and red flags.”
As my colleague Michael Birnbaum reported, one of the major questions has been the extent of Russian influence. In the weeks before the referendum, Western officials complained of alleged Kremlin attempts to boost campaigns to suppress the vote. On a visit to Skopje last month. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned of Russian influence efforts.
"Analysts said Macedonia had been targeted by a wave of disinformation, much of it with ties to Russia, with dozens of new websites offering false information about the content of the deal and the consequences of going along with it,” Birnbaum wrote. “In July, a group of rowdy soccer fans said they had been paid to stir up violence at protests against the deal. And Greece barred four Russian diplomats from the country for what leaders there said were efforts to foment nationalist opposition to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s willingness to make a compromise with Skopje.”
The murky geopolitics of the moment loom over a complicated history. The dispute between Greece and Macedonia has been in effect ever since the latter broke away from what was then Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece saw an independent state with the same name as the region in its north as an implicit territorial threat. It slapped a trade embargo on the fledgling nation in the 1990s and blocked Macedonia’s entrance into a host of international organizations, including a 2008 veto of Macedonia’s bid to join NATO.
Sticking points in the dispute involve an emotional tussle over the legacy of the ancient Macedonian conqueror, Alexander the Great, whom both countries claim as part of their national heritage. Zaev’s decision this year to change the name of his country’s major airport — once Skopje Alexander the Great Airport — was a necessary confidence-building measure that paved the way for his agreement with Tsipras this summer.
But symbolism can’t compensate for the pitfalls of governance. Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky noted that Zaev’s gambit obscures his country’s stagnation and brain drain. Along with the boycott, a cocktail of local frustrations helped fuel the low turnout on Sunday.
“The hopes that have arisen for the region this year aren’t dead, but it will take more than the prospect of EU and NATO membership to produce specific solutions to long-standing problems,” Bershidsky wrote. “Patient political maneuvering, better day-to-day economic management, and cautious diplomacy are still the Western Balkans’ best chance.”
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