In the run-up to Macedonia/FYROM’s referendum on settling its three-decade-old Name Dispute with neighbouring Greece, the rival parties involved in the vote made impassioned pitches to their respective constituencies to take whatever actions they had proposed to help decide which direction the country will take.

Resolving the Name Dispute smoothly is critical for the political survival of Skopje’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. He had called for the vote to approve the controversial Prespes Agreement that was signed with Greece in June.  The country’s President, Gjorge Ivanov, who is from the main nationalist opposition party, has been stridently opposed to the deal. He used his recent speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to publicly and embarrassingly call for a boycott of the referendum, precisely the opposite of what Zaev had been campaigning on for the better part of four months.

Meanwhile, in Greece, it is becoming clearer since the Agreement how deeply the fate of embattled Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is tied to settling the Name Dispute on his – and not the country’s – terms.

West sings in unison in support of Prespes

Western leaders made coordinated efforts to support Zaev and boost turnout in the weeks leading to the referendum, briefly turning Skopje, usually considered a backwater in the region, into Europe’s top destination for high-level political visitors.

The parade of stars included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, among many others.

Zaev also met with US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on September 20 while in the US on UN-related business.

UN shenanigans reveal Skopje’s deep internal schism

Since June, Zaev has been able to navigate nimbly through the various smaller political crises involved in getting the Prespes Agreement to the referendum stage.

This week at the UN he suffered the embarrassing spectacle of seeing Ivanov, his country’s President, loudly reject Zaev’s hallmark achievement. The compromise with Greece that yielded the Prespes Agreement, along with a new name for the country, gave Ivanov the chance to use the General Assembly as a platform to insult the Western powers who have come out in support of Zaev’s efforts.

Speaking for Macedonia/FYROM at the UN, Ivanov called the agreement with Greece the equivalent of “historic suicide” and noted that “voting in a referendum is a right, not an obligation.” Interestingly, Ivanov also specifically took time to attack US and EU officials for suggesting during their barrage of visits to Skopje that the Prespes Agreement is his country’s only hope of ever joining NATO and the European Union.

As a consultative referendum, other options may exist before it can be ultimately ratified. Most observers, however, have concluded that a political crisis that may lead to new elections is the most likely outcome in the coming months. This would quite possibly freeze the ratification of the Agreement and further complicate the constitutional changes stipulated in the deal.

These prospects are expected to be both intricate and highly problematic as a 2/3 majority is required to pass the results of the referendum, and other changes in the constitution, as constitutional law.  Zaev’s coalition is expecting, and indeed depends on, Macedonia/FYROM’s large Albanian minority for support to counter the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Albanian support is key

Election data in Macedonia/FYROM is far from perfect and it has been over a decade since voter rolls were verified; even longer since a national census was, which would accurately measure the growth of the country’s large Albanian minority. The country’s 2011 census was cancelled amid speculation that the Albanian minority would be registered at substantially over 25% of the population as last calculated in 2002.

The worry going forward is that the support of Albanian minority voters for Zaev’s initiatives would paradoxically re-open wounds largely healed by the 2001 Ohrid Agreement that ended the Albanian population’s brief, but bloody, insurrection against the central government in Skopje.  This risk has been further exacerbated by the nationalist, pro-boycott forces who have been stressing to voters in the Slavic, Eastern Orthodox majority the danger of “allowing” the country’s Muslim Albanian voters to decide the country’s ultimate name.

The hand of Moscow revealed?

 New indications of an attempt to suppress voter turnout via social media were made public at the last minute by the Trans-Atlantic Commission on Election Integrity (TCEI), itself a relatively new bipartisan US and European group dedicated to addressing foreign interference in elections.

Referring primarily to twitter bot activity over the last month, the Commission noted in its statement that there was a clearly concerted effort to thwart the democratic rights of Macedonians in an attempt to delegitimise the referendum vote.

This information is not inconsistent, although not yet factually linked, with reports of Russia’s attempts to undermine the Prespes Agreement in both Macedonia/FYROM and Greece earlier in the summer, which included the expulsions of several Russian officials from Greece in July along with some targeted diplomatic reprisals by Moscow.

Name Dispute may decide the fate of Tsipras

Greek political analysts have for the past six months been making daily prognostications about how any deal with Macedonia/FYROM on the Name Dispute would impact Tsipras’ last year in office, aware that elections must be called, at the latest, by September 2019.

Most are now predicting that elections will be scheduled for the spring of 2019, as European elections, as well as Greek municipal elections, are already set for May.

Two main factors are in play before the date of elections is actually decided.  The first is the ratification timeline for the Prespes Agreement, all dependent on developments in Macedonia/FYROM over the next weeks that may or may not result in an agreement coming to the Greek Parliament for formal ratification.

Conventional wisdom had placed that package arriving in Greece in the January-February time period, but recent remarks from Greek officials now place the date a few months later, most likely sometime in the spring.

A meltdown in the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition is widely predicted at that point, and ANEL’s leader and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos routinely repeats his threat to oppose a ratification of the deal when/if it arrives for a vote.

SYRIZA officials say they believe they have assembled enough independent deputies and some small party supporters to make up for ANEL’s departure, as SYRIZA currently has 145 deputies in the 300-seat Greek parliament, while ANEL has just 7  — some of whom are wavering as the party faces the possibility of dissolving in the next election.

Tsipras is undoubtedly counting on full support from Washington, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels in order to deliver a positive Prespes Agreement ratification vote. Tsipras must, however, deal with the economic situation in Greece and whether the Eurogroup in its December deliberations will approve his government’s request to cancel planned pension cuts – a move the IMF considers essential in regards to structural reforms.

Tsipras’ government had previously agreed to the cuts with its creditors, but the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition has been arguing stridently in the last weeks that there is sufficient “fiscal space” with the country’s large primary budget surplus to forgo this much-needed reform.  Creditors are divided as the decision also impacts next year’s European elections and any subsequent decisions in Brussels as the reform is considered crucial for the long-term viability of the Greek pension system.

Cancellation will inevitably impact markets.

While Tsipras was in New York for the UN General Assembly, both issues were front and centre, but the main focus – for both the US press and Tsipras, himself – was his commitment to pushing ahead with the ratification of the Prespes Agreement.

While speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Tsipras said, “I will not play games.  The (Prespes) agreement will be ratified in the Greek parliament just after the end of the procedure.”