Thought Babble

The Macedonian Referendum: two sides of a coin

The Macedonian referendum result has created mixed feelings: 3 months ago a historic agreement between the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and the Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev was signed in order to settle a longstanding dispute between the two countries on the issue of the name of the Macedonian State, changing it from Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia.

The historical region of Macedonia is shared between the Republic of Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia. Greece has long standing fears that the Republic of Macedonia had expansionist aims in Greece.

The Hellenic and Macedonian parliaments have both approved the agreement, but Skopje has brought the issue to the people’s vote and the decision has drawn the opposition of the most nationalistic factions which have called for a boycott of the referendum in order to avoid the necessary quorum of 50% plus 1 of the votes.

We cannot affirm if the lack of the legal quorum was due to a boycott or a general disinterest of citizens, but the fact that it was not reached means that the agreement has not been approved in spite of the overwhelming vote in favour.

The negative aspect is that this would have finally solved a longstanding crisis between two countries in a delicate region of the world, the Balkans, which still need stability.

But there is a flipside to the coin: an approval would have meant that opening the gates of the European Union and NATO to Macedonia in the very near future and it is quite possible the country is not ready yet.

If we look back at the 2004 Eastern Enlargement, most of the countries which joined the EU were naive, young and not fully developed liberal democracies, and the Balkans are even more complex because its States have controversial foreign policies and various contrasts among them.

A positive result of the referendum could have been understood as a concrete proof that Macedonia may be on the right path to be an EU and NATO member, but unfortunately Macedonia is not a liberal democracy but a hybrid regime in spite of the fact that at the last general elections in 2016 there were two main political blocs (the VMRO-DPMNE coalition and the Social Democratic Union of prime minister Zaev).

The same Zaev was suspected to be plotting a coup and this created a deep constitutional crisis which required an EU mediation: the result was the Przino Agreement which reconciled the two main parties and brought about the 2016 elections.

This crisis would be inconceivable in an EU member state and shows how Macedonia is not a mature enough democracy.

The question surrounding the Balkans can be solved by normalising the foreign policy, but above all strengthening democracy (and the EU can do it with its conditionality policy).

If we are not sure that Macedonia is a full democracy, the membership of the EU and of NATO must be delayed. If these two organisations are to keep any credibility, they must act according to their founding principles and push for the countries which want to join them to adopt their values.

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