Opinion: FYROM Referendum on Name Change a Fiasco

Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras after signing the Prespa agreement on June 17 

Sunday’s referendum on the name change in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia turned out to be a fiasco, both for Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras.

The two leaders who signed the Prespa agreement in June expected totally different results, but the turnout left them dumbfounded. Only about one third of FYROM registered voters (about 630,000) went to the polls, less than the 50 percent required for the results to be valid.

But how else could it be? First of all the question the citizens were called to answer was incomplete: “Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” it said. There was no mention of the constitutional changes the Prespa agreement entails.

Then it was the low turnout that put a wet blanket on the winners. The “Yes” voters were over 90 percent, yet they could not celebrate because their votes were not enough to validate the results. There was no enthusiasm after the polls closed. Only a few awkward smiles, as television cameras showed.

Unwillingly, the West might be partly responsible for the measly turnout. In the past few weeks, everyone west of the Balkans urged FYROM citizens to vote “Yes”. From Donald Trump to Angela Merkel and from Emmanuel Macron to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “advised” the people of FYROM to seize the “historic opportunity” and accept the deal with Greece. Some of them even visited Skopje to promote the cause. This patronizing attitude might have turned like a boomerang and brought the opposite result, at least for some of the voters.

In Greece, the results brought mixed reactions. The Greek prime minister — who has a misleading, absurd referendum in his belt from July 2015 — rushed to call Zaev on the phone and congratulate him, urging him to keep going and try to pass the Prespa agreement in the FYROM House.

On the opposite side, Tsipras’ junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos, who has opposed the deal from the start, wrote a pointless “Told you so!” tweet in order to save face and grab the coattails of his voters who seem to abandon him.

Main opposition New Democracy seized the opportunity to capitalize on the opposing reactions to the referendum between the two coalition partners and slammed Tsipras and Kammenos, while reiterating the position that, “We will do everything we can to prevent the damaging Prespa agreement.”