Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Macedonia faces political turmoil after Russia ‘dirty tricks’

New elections may be called to push through changes to allow EU and Nato membership

A man drives a motorcycle in front of a campaign bilboard announcing the referendum on the renaming of the country, AFP
A man drives a motorcycle in front of a campaign bilboard announcing the referendum on the renaming of the country, AFP

Macedonia faces months of political turmoil after voters failed to turn out in force for a referendum to back a decisive turn towards the West in an increasingly bitter geopolitical battle with Russia.

The government said early elections may be necessary after Sunday’s inconclusive vote on a proposed change to the country’s name that would have allowed the Balkans nation to move closer to Nato and European Union membership.

Russia opposes Nato’s eastern expansion and the failure of the government-backed vote to secure a 50 per cent turnout to make it valid is likely to be welcomed by Moscow, according to analysts.

Nato and EU leaders sought to put a brave face on the result, welcoming the 91 per cent backing for the name change among the 36 per cent who voted. Both organisations said the door remained open to membership.

“I welcome the yes vote in Macedonia referendum,” wrote Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg in a tweet. “I urge all political leaders and parties to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity. Nato’s door is open, but all national procedures have to be completed.”

Senior EU officials voiced similar sentiments. “The parliament will now be called upon to proceed with the next steps for implementation of the name agreement by deciding on adoption" of the legal changes, said foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn in a joint statement.

It remained unclear if Prime Minister Zoran Zaev would succeed in pushing through plans to change the name to 'Republic of North Macedonia' to placate EU-member Greece which has a region with the same name and is concerned about a territorial claim.

He lacks the two-thirds majority in parliament to ensure its success and his defence minister said an election might be necessary. Russia said that it expected the law in Macedonia to be respected.


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The defence minister, Radmila Sekerinska, claimed that if there was a new election, then it would postpone the planned change for up to two months. Analysts suggested the problems would run deeper and last longer.

An early election could be called in Macedonia for the end of November at the earliest, pushing the constitutional changes into the spring.

“Instead of having a clearer picture the outcome of the referendum will only deepen the political crisis,” said Petar Arsovski a political analyst. “We are likely heading towards early elections and Macedonia does not have time for that.”

The geopolitical significance of the vote was clear once both the US defence secretary Jim Mattis and the German chancellor Angela Merkel both lobbied for a yes vote as a further bulwark against Russian influence and an attempt to create a stable Balkans region.

Mr Mattis accused Russia of meddling in the elections during a visit last week. “They have transferred money [to groups seeking to defeat the referendum] and they’re also conducting broader influence campaigns,” he said.

Macedonia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has only been an independent state since 1991 when it voted to leave after war wracked the region.

Russia has form for intervention in the region and is accused of trying to stage a coup in Montenegro to try to thwart the country’s ambitions for Nato membership.

Updated: October 1, 2018 09:45 PM