Macedonians went to the polls Sunday to vote on whether to re-name their country North Macedonia in a bid to settle a long-running row with Greece and unlock its path to NATO and EU membership.
Macedonia has struggled for recognition of its name since its birth in 1991 when the landlocked country declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Athens protested immediately, accusing Skopje of stealing the name of its own northern province also called Macedonia.
The dispute stretches back nearly three decades, with both countries claiming links to Alexander the Great’s ancient empire of Macedon, which spanned the territories.
A grandiose “antiquisation” project under Macedonia’s former government that plastered Skopje with neo-classical facades and statues of Alexander the Great added fuel to the fire.
But in June Macedonia’s new premier Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a landmark compromise under which Greece would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO in return for the name change.
Polls opened at 7am (0500 GMT) and are to close at 7pm in the referendum on whether to accept or reject the deal.
Only a trickle of voters showed up at a polling station set up in the high school Josip Broz Tito in downtown Skopje in the first hour of polling.
“I hope that the result will be positive. This referendum will change something if it opens the door for Europe and NATO,” 74-year old retired nurse Olivera Argirovska told AFP after casting her ballot.
“It will change things for the youth”.
Some feel it is embarrassing to have to change the name at the request of another country.
But a desire to anchor their future to the West — and the economic prosperity that it could bring — is a powerful motivation to accept the deal in one of Europe’s poorest nations.
“We cannot really say it is fair, but the EU and NATO matter more for all of us, so let’s move forward,” 28-year-old Abedin Memeti said ahead of the vote.
– Boycott –
The referendum is not binding, but a ‘yes’ majority would give parliament a political mandate to change the constitution.
If the deal is backed in the referendum and is ratified by two-thirds of MPs, the Greek parliament will be called on to give the final stamp of approval.
While the Macedonian government plans to call any significant majority in favour of the deal a success, the right-wing opposition may question the vote’s credibility if turnout is below 50 percent.
Some critics of the name deal have been calling for a boycott, including President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist opposition.
Massive emigration in recent decades could also affect the numbers, with nearly a quarter of the 2.1 million population estimated to live abroad.
Less than 3,000 of those overseas have signed up to vote.
– Western Balkans foothold –
Europe and the US have campaigned hard for the deal, with many leaders passing through Skopje to urge Macedonians to accept the “historic” opportunity.
NATO has already issued an invite — on hold until the deal passes — while EU accession talks are scheduled to begin next year.
The West is keen to have another foothold in the Western Balkans, a region where Russia, which is opposed to NATO expansion, has historically had influence.
At home, those in favour of the deal say a desire for an EU future is helping bind ethnic Macedonians with the Albanian minority, who are broadly pro-West.
While Macedonia avoided the full-scale inter-ethnic wars that rippled across the region during the collapse of Yugoslavia, it was roiled by an Albanian insurgency in 2001 that left more than 100 dead.
A peace deal was reached later that year granting Albanians more political rights, but tensions have remained.
“This is the first time I am seeing Macedonians and Albanians campaigning together for common goals,” Besa Arifi, a law professor, told AFP.
“This will give us more opportunities to unite all citizens around shared values,” he added.