Name Dispute: Taking stock in Skopje after the disappointing referendum

EPA-EFE/NAKE BATEV

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev holds a press conference after the results in the Macedonian referendum to solve the name issue with Greece following the Prespes Agreement, in Skopje, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, September 30, 2018.

Notes from Skopje reveal the political leadership saw Tsipras as the best hope for a quick deal

 


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Shockwaves continue from the low turnout in the referendum in Macedonia/FYROM, which had been hoped to approve June’s Prespes Agreement settling the Name Dispute between Athens and Skopje. The 37% turnout for the September 30 poll has thrown the path forward on the Prespes Agreement into question.

Political consultations are ongoing in Skopje. Macedonia/FYROM’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev seeks to garner a 2/3 majority for the constitutional changes he must deliver as part of the Prespes deal, and he is about 10 deputies short.  The most likely outcome is the declaration of new elections in the immediate future.

For its part, Athens remains in listening mode this week, while Moscow has decried NATO’s interventions to “drag” Macedonia/FYROM into the alliance at any cost.

Week-long political consultations in Skopje

Zaev and his allies are working hard to chart a path forward after the September 30 referendum’s low turnout called the ratification procedure in Macedonia/FYROM for the Prespes Agreement into question.

As this was a consultative referendum, the actual ‘Yes” result was not officially binding on Zaev, but certainly frames the environment going towards any next steps in the process.  Turnout was recorded at 37%, and a large majority of voters (91.5%) voted for “yes” and a mere 5.6% voting “no.” A target figure of a 50% turnout had been set for the referendum to have been considered successful and this proved to be the key stumbling block.

Zaev and his allies are arguing that despite the less-than-expected turnout, the number of votes recorded at over 661,000 remains significant.  Other reports indicate the EU and NATO had earlier set a benchmark turnout of 600,000 votes for the referendum to be considered successful, but it is unclear what methodology they allegedly used to reach this number.

The country’s voting rolls are widely believed to be out-of-date and significant numbers of voters reported problems finding their names on the rolls where they traditionally voted, including senior political figures.  Other voter rolls are simply long lists of citizens in half-empty communities, with substantial numbers of former residents now living abroad.

In Macedonia/FYROM’s 2016 parliamentary elections the turnout rate reached 67%, while in the 2014 general elections – which combined parliamentary and presidential elections – the turnout was around 65%.

Without being able to correct for out-of-date voter rolls, analysts are now crediting the highly organised “boycott” campaign with having reduced the overall participation by 28-30 percentage points. In view of the overwhelming preponderance of “yes” votes registered, there is little doubt that the “yes” campaign would have prevailed had the turnout exceeded the 50% threshold.

Zaev faces an uphill battle in parliament

Zaev now faces the difficult prospect of somehow acquiring a 2/3 majority in the 120-seat Macedonia/FYROM parliament to pass the required constitutional changes as laid out in the Prespes Agreement.

With 71 of the 80 needed MPs under his coalition’s control, Zaev’s plan before the referendum had been to use the hoped-for positive results to convince a number of opposition MPs to support the changes. He has given the opposition “a few days” to review the situation before making new plans, launching consultations on October 2.

However, since the referendum, it is clear that the opposition VMRO-DPMNE has stiffened its resistance to any such compromise, although there had been speculation about a possible agreement with amnesty for disgraced nationalist former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is on trial for corruption, as part of a deal.

The country’s President, Gjorge Ivanov, a strong boycott supporter and VMRO-DPMNE figure, showed no intention of being willing to compromise in a televised address where he said:  “Do not try to change this reality. Do not underestimate the sovereign will of the Macedonian people…the reality is that the referendum is unsuccessful.”

In Prague on October 4, Ivanov amplified some of his comments, saying “the fact is we had a failed referendum, you cannot adopt a deal that is subject to a referendum without national consensus.” He went on to accuse the EU of double standards and referred to Slovenia and Croatia, countries with unresolved bilateral issues, when adding, “They were allowed to join the EU. Macedonia was not even allowed to start entry talks. The EU has so far treated Macedonia unfairly.”

It was immediately clear to most observers after the referendum that Zaev would probably have to call new elections after a brief consultation period, and a decision is expected in the next week, if not sooner, due to the fact that the Prespes Agreement had strict timetables for the constitutional revisions that barely allow for snap elections. This may or may not change the balance in parliament, despite strong Western support for Zaev.  Those provisions may, however, need to be extended if political infighting continues.

If elections are called, Zaev can count on the West’s support, although it is unclear if Skopje will be deluged by senior politicians from both the EU and the US, as that tactic seems to have boomeranged in regard to the referendum.

The key to the formation of a new coalition that can approve the Prespes-required constitutional changes will be the behaviour of the Albanian parties which largely sat out the referendum.

Reports filtering out of Albanian majority districts show significant ambivalence and some hostility towards the Prespes Agreement’s designation of the nationality of all the country’s citizens as “Macedonian”, which some in the Albanian community consider negative.

Big reveal from Skopje

While in Skopje for the referendum, reporters from the leading centrist Greek newspaper “Kathimerini” were shown a series of meeting notes from the briefings of the political party leaders in Macedonia/FYROM, with some excerpts made public on October 2.

Most of the material portrays the motivations of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in a negative light, with partisan political objectives clearly above national interests.

Earlier this year, Tsipras was understood by leaders in Skopje to have desired to wrap up the agreement quickly in order to call early elections shortly after Greece’s August 20 exit from the financial bailout program, something that has not come to pass.

By May of this year, the last set of meeting notes the reporters accessed indicated that the leaders in Skopje had concluded that Tsipras was the country’s best hope for achieving a deal as New Democracy had hardened its stance to the terms of the deal that had been revealed, which was not the complete package and was firmly rejected.

Western press less welcome in Skopje than had been expected

Macedonia/FYROM’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov was forced to tweet apologetically to the Financial Times’ Balkan correspondent after she had been the recipient of a Twitter threat from a journalist from Macedonia’s state news agency.

The correspondent was threatened by Cvetin Chilimanov, an outspoken employee of Macedonia’s MIA news agency, after she arrived to cover the September 30 referendum.

Apparently unconnected to the ongoing Russian disinformation efforts, the threat implied that the correspondent should be taken to an isolated area outside of town instead of to her destination, as seen in a local 1990s film about a taxi driver turned rapist. Chilimanov was reportedly suspended from his job on October 5.

Russia decries Western intervention

Never far from the centre of the conversation, Russia has accused the NATO countries of working to induct Macedonia/FYROM into the military alliance despite the referendum’s low turnout, which it characterised as invalid.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was reported by Kremlin-controlled state-run news agency TASS as saying, “Despite the fact that leading politicians in the EU and NATO openly urged Macedonian citizens to vote in favour, which, we believe is a totally unacceptable practice, all this ended in failure.”

The ever-outspoken and virulently anti-Western Zakharova later openly attacked NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in particular for his active role and continuing pressure in support of the Prespes Agreement, adding, “However, they welcomed its results without batting an eyelid. In particular, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg promised to grant Skopje membership in the alliance as early as the beginning of 2019, leaving no doubt that the parliaments of Macedonia and Greece would pass the required decisions. The continuation of heavy-handed outside interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs is evident. The goal is obvious – to drag Skopje into the alliance at any cost.”

Athens in listening mode

Greece, so far, remains in a holding pattern having understood that the EU and NATO remain fully behind Zaev’s efforts in Skopje and that Athens’ allies are not pressing the Greek government for a referendum or for Tsipras to otherwise expand the ratification procedure to require 180 deputies instead of a simple majority in the 300-seat Parliament.

The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition is divided over the Prespes Agreement issue, with ANEL leader and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos having declared his readiness to break with the coalition if the Prespes Agreement is ever deposited with the Greek Parliament for ratification, which he claims will never happen.

Some of the media’s and the public’s attention has been drawn away from the referendum results over the last several days due to developing stories about the stability of Greek banks and other economic issues that include the already legislated January 2019 pension cuts.

 

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