By Radio Free Europe
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says citizens must either agree to accept a new name for the country or face a future of “instability” and “isolation.”
In an interview with the AFP news agency published on September 16, Zaev urged Macedonians to vote yes in the referendum to decide on whether to rename the country the Republic of Northern Macedonia.
The referendum is scheduled for September 30 and follows an agreement with neighboring Greece to end a decades-long dispute over the country’s name.
The name dispute between Skopje and Athens dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.
Greece has objected to the name Macedonia, saying it implies territorial claims on the northern Greek region with the same name.
Because of Greek objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Greece, an EU and NATO member, has also cited the dispute to veto Macedonia’s bid to join the two organizations.
Pro-European Zaev faces opposition to the name change, mainly from nationalists among the country’s 2.1 million people.
The referendum will ask, “Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”
A poll conducted in July by the U.S.-financed Center for Insights in Survey Research found 57 percent supported the change.
“I am so strongly convinced that the referendum will succeed that I’m not even looking into other options,” Zaev told AFP.
U.S. and European leaders have encouraged Macedonians to vote for the new name, seeing it as a way to firmly establish the country within the Western sphere and prevent Russia from making further inroads.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will embark on September 16 on a trip to Skopje to “show U.S. support for Macedonia during NATO accession and continued U.S. commitment to peace and security in the region,” according to the Defense Department.
Speaking to reporters on September 11, Mattis said he was concerned about alleged acts of “mischief” by Russia to try to block Macedonia’s path to NATO membership.
Moscow denies claims of interference but opposes NATO expansion eastward.
U.S. President Donald Trump wrote to his Macedonian counterpart, Gjorge Ivanov, on September 6 saying, “The agreement and Macedonia’s membership in NATO will bolster security, stability, and prosperity throughout the entire region.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called on Macedonians to vote in favor of a name change, saying on September 8 that “this is a historic chance that a generation has only once.”
“Don’t stay at home: Seize the democratic opportunity to say what you think about the future of your country,” she added.
Zaev said, meanwhile, that the Russians “told me that they have nothing against Macedonia’s accession to the EU but that they are opposed to NATO integration.”