Few Macedonians turned out to vote in a referendum on whether to change the name of their country – a move that could pave the way for it to join NATO and the European Union.
According to election officials, only about a third of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday. But more than 90 percent of those voting cast a ballot in favor of changing the country’s name to North Macedonia.
Macedonia’s electoral commission said two days ago the referendum results would be declared invalid if less than 50 percent of the eligible voting population went to the polls.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who had said he would resign if a vast majority of eligible voters did not approve the referendum, described the vote as a clear success, despite the low turnout.
Zaev said he would not resign because a “vast majority” of those who turned out Sunday approved the measure.
He urged lawmakers to ratify the necessary changes to the constitution, which would finalize the deal.
In a statement Sunday, however, the Greek Foreign Ministry said the “contradictory” vote – overwhelming approval, yet low turnout – would require Macedonia to move carefully to “preserve the positive potential of the deal.”
The U.S. State Department on Sunday welcomed the results of the referendum. In a statement, the department said the U.S. “strongly supports the Agreement’s full implementation, which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security and prosperity.”
However, nationalists, including Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, had urged a boycott of the vote.
Macedonians are being asked to change the name of their country to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece and pave the way for the country’s admission into NATO and the European Union.
Athens has argued that the name “Macedonia” belongs exclusively to its northern province of Macedonia and using the name implies Skopje’s intentions to claim the Greek province.
Greece has for years pressured Skopje into renouncing the country’s name, forcing it to use the more formal moniker Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the United Nations. Greece has consistently blocked its smaller neighbor from gaining membership in NATO and the EU as long it retains its name.
President Ivanov said giving in to Athens’ demand would be a “flagrant violation of sovereignty.”
He steadfastly refused to back the deal reached between Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, that put the name change to a vote.
“This referendum could lead us to become a subordinate state, dependent on another country,” Ivanov said. “We will become a state in name only, not in substance.”