Referendum preview: Macedonia

The global march of authoritarianism – or what one might now describe as the joint Trump-Putin foreign policy program – faces two significant tests in coming days. The bigger one is the Brazilian presidential election, whose first round is on 7 October. We’ll get to that in a subsequent post.

The earlier test, however, is in the Balkan nation of Macedonia, which votes this Sunday in a referendum on its agreement with Greece.

Ever since Macedonia became independent in 1991, with the breakup of Yugoslavia, successive Greek governments have complained that its name, shared with a region of northern Greece, constitutes a threat to Greek territorial integrity. On this basis it has stalled Macedonia’s entry to NATO and the European Union, and ensured that it was admitted to the United Nations only under the clumsy title “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”

Macedonia has reiterated many times that it makes no claims on Greek territory, but the previous Macedonian government under the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE, in power from 2006 to 2017, made a number of provocative moves that aroused Greek resentment.

This year, however, with left-wing governments in power in both countries, progress has finally been made. In June the two prime ministers, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev, signed an agreement to resolve the dispute. Macedonia would rename itself “North Macedonia” and take other measures to dissociate itself from the ancient Macedonians, and Greece would normalise relations on that basis.

Following the deal, the EU and NATO both approved the start of accession talks.

But for right-wing nationalists on both sides, the agreement is anathema. VMRO-DPMNE and its allies have attacked it as a sellout to Greece, although there are reports that it had made a similar offer when it was in government.

More remarkably, a strong current of Greek opinion is also opposed to the deal, even though the Macedonians are the ones who seem to have made the concessions. Tsipras’s government survived a no-confidence motion on the subject, but resistance from the hard right continues – showing again how extremists from notionally opposite sides can operate as tactical allies.

Now Macedonian voters are to have their say. Officially the referendum is non-binding; parliament will have to make the constitutional changes to implement the agreement. But a defeat, or a failure to reach the benchmark of 50% turnout, would be a significant setback.

It would also be a big win for Vladimir Putin, who is interested in preventing further expansion of either the EU or NATO, in polishing his role as the guarantor of Slav interests in the Balkans, and in generally sowing dissension among the Europeans. Nationalists of all stripes are potentially useful to him.

American policy is less clear; Donald Trump’s scepticism about NATO has not yet translated into active moves to undermine the alliance. US defence secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, commonly regarded as the sanest person in the administration, recently visited Macedonia and warned against Russian interference.

But Trumpists have previously shown a willingness to meddle in Macedonia, and it may be that only the president’s ignorance of the subject has prevented him from making trouble.

It appears, however, that VMRO-DPMNE has taken a more moderate path since the departure of former leader Nikola Gruevski (who was subsequently convicted on corruption charges). While the opposition has organised protests against the agreement with Greece, it has not officially called for a boycott of the vote. It looks as if it doesn’t want to take responsibility for torpedoing the deal – or, for that matter, to be seen as a Russian puppet.

It’s far from the biggest issue disturbing the peace in Europe, but a vote for compromise on Sunday might at least bring resolution to an utterly unnecessary dispute.

To check for results on Monday morning, try the electoral commission website, here.

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