By Any Other Name

Macedonia's premier said he hoped that EU and NATO membership would “whip” his country “into shape.” But last week's failed referendum has instead pitched the small Balkan state into crisis.

Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev speaks to supporters during a final referendum rally for the coalition "For European Macedonia" on September 27, 2018 in Tetovo, Macedonia. Chris McGrath / Getty

On September 30, voters in Macedonia headed to the polls for a referendum on changing the country’s official name. If this move sought to resolve the country’s long-running standoff with its neighbor, Greece, the referendum question also presented this healing of relations as a step toward Macedonian membership in the European Union and NATO.

But the referendum did not go as planned. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that last Sunday voters didn’t head to the polls. While 94 percent of those who cast a ballot approved the deal, which would have renamed the country “North Macedonia,” barely more than a third of voters actually turned out. A 50 percent turnout was required for the referendum to pass.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who planned the name change in a deal with Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, had expressed hope that future ties with the EU and NATO could “whip Macedonia into shape.” But after the vote, Macedonia — a state formed after the collapse of Yugoslavia — once again finds its future in the balance.

This dispute may have once been simply about Greece and Macedonia’s contested names and histories. But for the Left, it is also a matter of Macedonia’s choice between being drawn into Euro-Atlantic institutions or finding a different path to development.

The name dispute dates back to the Republic of Macedonia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Its southern neighbor, Greece, calls its northernmost region Macedonia, a name derived from the ancient Kingdom of Macedon. The Republic of Macedonia also claims such a connection and in recent years has even erected monuments to figures from that era such as Alexander the Great. Itself strongly identifying with this history and concerned by some Macedonians’ territorial claims over this area, Greece has objected to not only its neighbor’s name and use of this ancient history but also to its citizens’ declaration of their nationality and language as Macedonian.

For Macedonians, the name dispute has always been central to political life. But what is perhaps not so widely discussed, even when the issue reaches international news, is Greece’s power as a member of the EU and NATO to veto Macedonia’s membership in these organizations. Many Macedonians who see membership in the West’s major international organizations as a path to prosperity thus see Greece as the major obstacle faced, notwithstanding austerity-hit Greece’s otherwise weak position within the EU order. Indeed, this issue has been exploited by right-wing parties and nationalist movements in both countries.

The deal brokered this June between Zaev, Tsipras, and the two countries’ respective foreign ministers, in the bilateral Prespa Agreement, had seemed the closest step yet to resolving this problem. The most important part of the agreement concerned changing the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” while keeping its official language “Macedonian” and its nationality “Macedonians” or “citizens of North Macedonia.” In exchange, in an unprecedented move, Greece would finally agree to recognize the Macedonian national identity and language. This was presented as an agreement that would put an end to a historic dispute.

However, when put to a popular vote this agreement was not only framed as a way to create a friendship and partnership between the two countries, but also as a necessary step toward Macedonia’s membership in the EU and NATO. And despite apparent support for this prospect, the referendum failed.

Macedonian elections usually have relatively high turnout — in the last vote, some 66 percent. Yet if last Sunday’s referendum saw a decisive 94 percent victory for Yes, only 37 percent of voters actually turned out. As always, a part of the population was simply indifferent and didn’t vote, but what was noteworthy in this case was an effective boycott campaign, driven by multiple different forces. Most important was that a large part of the right-wing electorate didn’t vote, also thanks to a boycott campaign premised on the need to defend the country’s national identity. At the same time, a much smaller group of left-wing forces, such as those from the party Levica (The Left) opposed the deal because of their anti-imperialism and opposition to NATO.

Indeed, the wording of the referendum question itself encouraged the confluence of different forms of opposition. The ballot asked: “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

Absurdly, therefore, this question took the membership in these two organizations as a given — as if a direct product of the ratification of the agreement with Greece — rather than simply as one possible outcome. Indeed, this question effectively asked for the voter to make three decisions with just one vote.

It was largely nationalist forces that drove the boycott campaign. Their strategy was to render the referendum illegitimate through low turnout, rather than any attempt to mobilize a “No” vote. Especially visible was the #Бојкотирам (“I boycott”) movement, which declared itself “an anonymous decentralized group without a leader” and equated Macedonian identity with the defense of its current name. Tellingly of its politics, its website also features an image of alt-right meme Pepe the Frog. The real size and influence of this movement is, however, debatable. Similarly, while international media made inevitable comments about “Russian interference” in the referendum — as displayed by the “I boycott” position advanced by Janko Bachev and his newly founded United Macedonia party, which has openly vaunted its pro-Russian stance — both the scale of the boycott and the longstanding nature of this dispute point to multiple internal reasons for the surprise vote.

Likely more decisive to the outcome was the role of the more established VMRO-DPMNE — the authoritarian, center-right party that governed Macedonia for eleven years before the current coalition came to power in 2017. VMRO-DPMNE opposed the conditions of the agreement with Greece, even while also insisting that agreement with the EU and NATO would be good for the country’s future prospects. Its leader did not officially call for a boycott, but both its opposition to the name change and its recent record bolstered the nationalist agenda.

Indeed, even after being ousted from national government in 2017, VMRO-DPMNE remains a powerful force in the land. In office over the last decade, even though it lacked a parliamentary majority, it managed to create and maintain a clientelist state. The centre-right party took advantage of the country’s poverty to give thousands of economically insecure people jobs such as positions in public administration that were essentially useless except for the purposes of underpinning its own authority. On top of this kind of economic control, during its rule VMRO-DPMNE controlled most state and private media, which it used to broadcast various forms of nationalist propaganda including government-sponsored adverts, talkshows and distorted portrayals of the news.

Through the “Skopje 2014” architectural project, which resulted in the building of hundreds of statues of supposed historic figures, VMRO-DPMNE also promoted so-called “antiquization,” i.e. propagating the idea the most important part of Macedonian identity is the ancient history of Alexander the Great and the Kingdom of Macedon, even though, unlike ethnic Macedonians today, the people who lived in that period were not Slavic. Through these processes VMRO-DPMNE not only worked for its own reelection but reinforced an identitarian nationalism that had not previously been present in mainstream politics to such an extreme degree. This mood did not disappear overnight after the party’s ejection from office and was doubtless also a significant factor in aiding the boycott campaign.

However, a consideration of VMRO-DPMNE’s positions is not the only way of appraising the merits of the referendum proposal. Indeed, on a smaller scale, the left-wing Levica party opposed the referendum on the grounds of anti-imperialism. Formed in February 2016, this party expresses its support for social justice, workers’ rights, anti-capitalism and anti-nationalism and was an active part of the 2016 protests against the VMRO-DPMNE government, known as the “Colorful Revolution.”

Levica took a distinctive position insofar as it asserted an anti-imperialist opposition against NATO in particular, but not against the EU. Indeed, if Macedonia were to join NATO, the country would almost certainly have to increase our military budget and allow US forces to have military bases on its soil; Levica thus used the referendum to advance its anti-imperialist opposition to any such move. It sought to distinguish between the prospect of drawing closer to the EU as an economic and political organization and to NATO as a military one.

This stance was, however, a rare one, also insofar as Macedonian public discourse generally makes little distinction between these two institutions (whose memberships overlap but are far from the same). Indeed, they often appear together in a generic invocation of foreign power as a solution to Macedonian ills. Typical in this regard was the prime minister’s explanation of why he would welcome the country’s future in the EU and NATO, stating: 

We need a whipper. We need someone from EU and NATO to come here and whip us into shape, from me on top, down to everyone else. Because there has to be a European kind of order. There have to be European rules. That is something we want and aim to achieve.

One might ask why, exactly, any country would wish to be whipped into shape. Certainly, the hope of renewal and an escape from a dire economic situation underpin a degree of public support for such a call for change. While healthcare is socialized, many public hospitals have gone for decades without renovation, and despite small improvements under the current government the unemployment rate remains at 21.1 percent. When the situation is so bad and our country so small, some politicians and voters see integration into larger (Western) international structures as the sole path for not only development, but even survival. This, even if one may doubt the appropriateness of calling for outsiders to come along with “whips.”

The surprisingly low turnout in the 30 September referendum has forced Zaev’s government to proceed with a new strategy, in its bid to confer political legitimacy on the agreement made with Greek premier Tsipras.

One remaining option is to try to push the decision through parliament. The current ruling coalition, which unites the Social Democratic Party and the Albanian party DUI, has only 71 out of the 120 representatives, so in order for the agreement to be passed (which would require a two-thirds majority; 80 votes) the government would also need the support of MPs from the center-right. Given VMRO-DPMNE’s opposition to the name change, this is a far from certain prospect; if it proves unachievable, Zaev has declared that he will call fresh elections and then hold a vote in parliament once more.

The problem with going forward in this manner is that it raises questions about the democratic process itself. The boycott campaign leaves the government with an uncertain mandate: while over six hundred thousand people voted “yes” in the referendum (more than the votes that put the current coalition in power) it is difficult to see how a parliamentary vote can ratify a particular decision which the population just refused to make in a direct-democratic referendum.

The referendum produced a surprise outcome. What is clear is that, despite the supposedly historic agreement reached with Greece in June, Macedonia isn’t following the path that the international community expected of it. Perhaps whipping it into shape will prove harder than Prime Minister Zaev suggested.