Name Dispute: Zaev scores stunning victory from failed referendum

EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addresses to the media after the members of parliament voted for the start changing the state's constitution on the parliamentary session in Skopje, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), October 19, 2018. Two thirds (80 members of the parliament) of Macedonian parliament voted to start changing the state's constitution and constitutional changes to change the name of the country in North Macedonia according to the deal with Greece.

After last-minute surprise in Skopje, observers see a tomorrow for the Prespes Agreement


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In a late-night vote October 19th, Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev collected the required 80 yes votes, or a 2/3 majority, to approve the first phase of changes to the country’s constitution, a remarkable recovery for Zaev from what most see as a failed referendum due to low participation after the opposition boycotted.

Ultimately this turn of events most likely means the Prespes Agreement, signed by Greece and Macedonia/FYROM in June, will have to be ratified in the Greek parliament next year, something its nationalist opponents in both countries had believed was unlikely after the referendum, which will probably trigger elections in Greece.

First of several critical votes

Voting was delayed several times on October 19 while Zaev aggressively sought out the minimum number of votes he needed, and the end he succeeded. While the bulk of the opposition (39) voted no, the only number that matters was the 80 who cast their ballot for approval, which keeps the process for ratifying the Prespes Agreement on track in Skopje.

The procedure is not over; the rules for amending the constitution will require at least two more parliamentary committee sessions and votes, as well as two additional plenary sessions and votes. According to legal experts in Skopje, these votes all require a 2/3 majority, meaning observers should expect a heightened sense of drama and tension in this battle for some time.

Democratic procedures of little concern to the western allies

There were repeated reports from the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party of largely unconventional tactics used by Zaev and his allies to secure the last 9 votes not already within his coalition’s control or temporarily allied with Zaev.

The opposition is highlighting the fact that a number of those who broke ranks and joined Zaev were facing criminal charges involving corruption, intimating these charges will be dropped as part of a deal. In addition, a number of unsubstantiated reports of bribery attempts to obtain the yes vote were also logged in the days preceding the vote, and Zaev’s government has threatened legal action in response to these allegations.

Monitoring the elections from Athens, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos tweeted “who would have believed that in a Europe of values and democracy whoever votes against orders is jailed, and whoever behaves gets a bonus of two billion euros in black money. I am ashamed.” This tweet was quickly labelled as “fake news” by a government spokesperson in Skopje.

In any event, it is doubtful that western human rights groups, to whom protests have been sent by the opposition, will react.

Readers should recall that US Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell had written to opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski on October 16 asking him to create the space to allow his party members “to vote freely” on the constitutional amendments, free from “coercion or threats of violence.” Foreign supporters were clearly ready with messages prepared in advance of the vote.

NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg and the EU’s Donald Tusk fired off supportive tweets almost immediately after the vote, followed by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Impact on Greek election timing

For Athens, the message from the vote is clear: the situation and timeline now largely revert back to what had been sketched out before the failed September 30 referendum in Macedonia/FYROM. If all votes in Skopje pass muster and the required 2/3 majority is maintained, there will be no snap elections there and the Prespes Agreement will arrive in Athens for ratification sometime in the first quarter of 2019.

If the expected divorce between SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party in the current coalition occurs in connection with the Prespes Agreement ratification vote, the stage is set for Greece’s general elections to be declared in late winter or early spring, with the timing most likely linked to the May 2019 European elections.

While general elections must be called by September 2019 in any event, it seems ANEL Leader (and Defense Minister) Kammenos holds most of the cards connected with election timing in 2019. His party is one of those that the latest polls show may not reach the minimum 3% threshold to obtain parliamentary seats.

Tsipras was sworn in as replacement foreign minister, replacing Nikos Kotzias, who resigned on October 17 after a prolonged exchange with Kammenos the day before.

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