Macedonians are voting on whether to accept a deal ending a decades-long dispute with neighbouring Greece by changing their country’s name to North Macedonia.
The June deal would pave the way for Nato and possibly European Union membership, ending a dispute dating from the early 1990s when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Greece had argued that name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name, and blocked the country’s efforts to join Nato. But the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border.
Opponents in Macedonia have called for a boycott of the referendum and include the country’s President Gjorge Ivanov, who calls the deal a “flagrant violation of sovereignty”.
Voters were confronted with the question: “Are you in favour of membership in Nato and European Union by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”
The referendum is non-binding, allowing the government to take the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of the turnout. Under the country’s constitution, a binding referendum would need a minimum turnout of 50%.
Supporters of the deal, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country’s future prosperity, the key to its ability to join Nato and, eventually, the EU.
I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations
It would be a major step for a country that less than two decades ago almost descended into civil war, when parts of its ethnic Albanian minority took up arms against the government, seeking greater rights. Mr Zaev cast his ballot in the south-eastern town of Strumica and called on his fellow citizens to ensure a strong turnout.
“I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations,” Mr Zaev said.
“I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multi-ethnic nature of this country and the political unity of this country, no matter which party they are coming from.”
If the “Yes” vote wins, the next step is for the government to amend parts of the country’s constitution to ensure it does not contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece. Only after those changes are approved by the Macedonian parliament does the deal face ratification in Greece.