Why is Macedonia voting to change its name?

2018-09-26 20:36

On September 30 Macedonians will head to the polls to vote on whether to add "North" to their country's official name.

Why?

The name-change is an effort to overcome a 27-year-old argument with neighbouring Greece, which has refused to recognise Macedonia's name since the Balkan country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Athens argues that the name belongs solely to its northern province called Macedonia, accusing Skopje of harbouring territorial ambitions.

In protest, Greece has blocked Macedonia from NATO and the EU.

Athens has also forced the country to use the clunky name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in the UN.

The animosity deepened when Macedonia's former premier Nikola Gruevski went on a construction spree in the capital Skopje, erecting massive statues of Alexander the Great – a hero both countries claim as their own – and plastering government buildings in hellenic-inspired facades.

Athens, fiercely proud of its ancient history, blasted the moves as cultural appropriation.

But Gruevski's downfall and the arrival last spring of a new government led by Macedonia's Social Democrats, allowed for an opening.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras met several times and inked an agreement in June that voters are now being called upon to approve.

What is in the deal?

It is not just about the country's official name.

The deal also delves into history, language and identity.

The key clause is Article 7, which says the terms "Macedonia" and "Macedonian" refer to "a different historical context and cultural heritage" for each country.

For Skopje, a core victory was maintaining that their language can be called Macedonian, plus guarantees that Athens would stop blocking the path to NATO and the EU.

But Macedonians will no longer be able to claim ties to the "ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage" of Greece's Macedonia province, according to the deal.

In recent years, Macedonian textbooks were rewritten to draw a link between present day Macedonians, who are ethnic Slavs, and the ancient Kingdom of Macedon which was led by Alexander the Great.

Macedonian officials say history books will likely have to be revised and that explanatory plaques will be laid before statues of Alexander the Great and other contested monuments.

Passports and car plates will also have to change.

Does a 'yes' vote solve the issue?

No. The referendum is only "consultative", according to Prime Minister Zaev.

The next hurdle will be getting two-thirds of parliament to ratify the agreement and make necessary changes to the constitution.

Currently, the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party is standing in the way.

The nationalist party has criticised the deal, though they have stopped short of publicly calling for a boycott.

They have instead come out to announce their positions individually, with President Gjorge Ivanov, from VMRO-DPMNE, saying this weekend that he personally will not vote.

Zaev is hoping a strong approval from the public will make it difficult for the party to ignore the people's will.

Surveys suggest the referendum has a strong chance of passing, despite a lack of enthusiasm about the new name.

For many Macedonians, the key driver to the polls is their desire to start EU accession talks in hopes of injecting life into a flat economy.

Is Russia meddling?

The US has accused Russia – which is openly opposed to NATO's enlargement -- of running a disinformation campaign pushing for the referendum to fail.

"No doubt that they have transferred money and that they are also conducting a broader influence campaign," US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last week on a visit to Skopje.

Premier Zaev played down the allegations, saying, "we don't have proof about Russian influence".

Historically, Moscow has less clout in Macedonia than in other Balkan neighbours such as Serbia and Montenegro.

But Russians have been accused of fomenting protests against the deal in neighbouring Greece, forcing Athens to expel two diplomats over the allegation in July.

Where is the 'no' campaign?

For now, mostly on social media, trailed by the hashtag #Bojkotiram", which means "boycott" in Macedonian.

Thousands of fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter are helping amplify its affect, according to Macedonia's Investigative Reporting Lab, an NGO.

Macedonia was notorious as a hub for fake news producers who tried to influence the 2016 US election.

Now some sites are using their skills to sow confusion at home.

In August a story went viral alleging NATO would use depleted uranium at a Macedonian army base. The Defence Minister later denied the report, calling it "fake news".

What happens if the vote fails?

In an interview this month with AFP, Zaev warned that a failure to pass the referendum would isolate the country and could open a new "chapter of insecurity and instability in the whole region".

The fragile Balkans are home to a host of complex disputes, some of which date back to the brutal 1990s wars that undid Yugoslavia and left 130 000 dead.

Zaev is hoping that a successful vote could make the deal a role model for other regional disputes.

"It would just be a real setback, on all sorts of levels, if this didn't go through," said James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics.

"We know that there won't be any going back to the table," he added.

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