On Sunday, citizens of the Republic of Macedonia face a historic vote. Should they change their country's name — and in doing so, continue on the path toward the European Union and NATO?
Never before have so many high-ranking Western politicians traveled to Macedonia's capital, Skopje, than in the past few weeks. Their shared mission: to support the country's government ahead of this Sunday's historic referendum, when Macedonians will get to vote on whether their country should become the Republic of North Macedonia — and whether they support eventual membership in the European Union and NATO.
The referendum has drawn much interest from both the West and the Kremlin. On a visit to Skopje last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis accused Russia of attempting to manipulate the outcome. He is convinced that Moscow provided funds to support a "broad campaign to influence" the people of Macedonia ahead of the crucial vote.
Moscow, which is not in favor of Macedonia joining the EU and NATO, has denied the accusation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has accused Western leaders of meddling in Macedonia's domestic affairs by supporting the June agreement that aims to settle the long-standing name dispute between Macedonia and Greece.
Over the summer, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev accused Greek-Russian businessman Ivan Savvidis of bankrolling certain political movements to foment turmoil and violence in his country in order to manipulate public opinion. And in July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats who were blamed for trying to undermine the name agreement.
How the name dispute began
When what is known today as Macedonia emerged from the former Yugoslavia as an independent state in 1991, it was drawn into a fierce dispute over its name with Greece.
Athens feared that by choosing Macedonia, the country was signaling its territorial ambitions on the Greek province of the same name, birthplace of the ancient warrior king Alexander the Great. Since then, Athens has blocked Skopje's moves to join the EU and NATO.
Yet in June, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zaev finally reached an agreement regarding the name dispute: Macedonia would rename itself the Republic of North Macedonia, and Greece would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the Western alliances. And if the country's citizens decide to sanction the new name on Sunday, the path toward NATO and EU membership will be set.
Strong economic ties with Europe
Dusan Reljic, of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said the EU — and Germany in particular — account for 80 percent of Macedonia's trade relationships. He says German companies have invested heavily in Macedonian auto parts manufacturers, while most oil refineries and steel mills are owned by British and Greek companies.
"The region is deeply integrated with the EU in economic and political terms, and in many other regards, too," said Reljic. "Macedonia has only a few economic ties to Russia." Russia's concern, he told DW, is not connected to economics but instead lie with NATO: Russia feels threatened by what it sees as NATO trying to expand its sphere of influence.
Dmitry Zhuravlev, director of Russian Institute of Regional Problems, shares this view. According to Zhuravlev, Macedonia joining the EU does not really concern Moscow. But a possible NATO membership worries the Kremlin because Russia "lacks an alliance of its own." Zhuravlev said Russia sees "the NATO expansion as an attempt to tilt the balance of power."
Reljic said Macedonia's possible membership in NATO and, eventually, the EU is important for the West. "Macedonia is divided along ethnic lines: at least one-third of the country are Albanians, and the vast majority are Macedonian Slavs.
"The large Albanian minority lives along Macedonia's border with Kosovo and Albania, which are home to Albanians," he said. "Creating a large Albanian state in the region" would not only destabilize Macedonia but the entire region. "The West hopes that if Macedonia joins NATO, it will bring much needed stability to the area."
Worries over low voter turnout
Recent opinion polls have indicated that 57 percent of Macedonians are in favor of EU and NATO membership. But one week ahead of the crucial vote, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov spoke out against the referendum, calling the June agreement between Athens and Skopje a "flagrant violation of sovereignty." Opposition politicians have also urged voters to boycott Sunday's vote.
The New York Times has reported that up to 40 Facebook pages have popped up daily calling on Macedonians to abstain from voting in the referendum. The newspaper wrote that Western diplomats suspect Russia is bankrolling this anti-referendum campaign.
Reljic believes the final outcome of Sunday's vote could be a close call. "Fifty percent of those eligible to vote will have to turn up; that's 900,000 voters." Macedonia has a population of just 2 million, of which a sizable number live abroad. "The biggest challenge for Prime Minister Zaev will be ensuring the referendum quorum is met," he said.