Changing the country's name to North Macedonia would pave the way to joining NATO under a deal with Greece. But the controversial agreement has faced immense opposition from the public on both sides of the border.
Macedonians voted Sunday in a referendum to decide on a long-standing dispute with Greece over the name of their country. The Skopje government aims to change the name of the Balkan state, currently known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to North Macedonia.
Greece has accused its northern neighbor of stealing the historic legacy — and even territory — of its northernmost province, also called Macedonia. The rift has resulted in Greece's blocking Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union.
On Sunday, voters were asked whether they were in favor of possible NATO and EU memberships as a result of a deal struck in June between their government and Greece.
Opponents in Macedonia, including the country's president, Gjorge Ivanov, called for a boycott of the vote, calling the deal "poisonous" and a "flagrant violation of sovereignty."
The final turnout was thought to be less than 50 percent. Just half an hour before polls closed, officials said only 34 percent of the electorate had cast their ballots.
Support for 'Yes' campaign
The referendum is non-binding and was not mandatory as part of the agreement made by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras. However, a majority "Yes" would be considered a reflection of public opinion and allow the government to proceed with the name change. Officially, the Macedonian parliament needs a two-thirds majority to approve certain constitutional changes, which would subsequently allow Greece to ratify the bilateral agreement.
Prime Minister Zaev believes that the deal would lead to the membership in NATO and the EU, boosting economic growth in the impoverished country.
"Today is a beautiful day, a beautiful holiday for the country. Today the citizens are going out to decide on their future," he told the press after casting his ballot.
Vote of expediency
Not many Macedonians share his enthusiasm, but some say they will go along with the name change for the sake of the country's membership in international alliances.
One such voter, 28-year-old Abedin Memeti, told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency ahead of the vote: "We cannot really say it is fair, but the EU and NATO matter more for all of us, so let's move forward.".
The Macedonian referendum has stirred much interest across Europe, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently heading to Skopje to urge Macedonians to vote 'Yes.'
Moscow is reportedly against NATO's expansion, with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis saying there was "no doubt" Russia funded the "No" campaign in Macedonia.
Read more: Macedonia: What's in a name?
shs/kms (AP, dpa, AFP)