What next after the failed Macedonian referendum?

Who is winning, Russia or the West? That vexing question seems to be on everyone’s mind with regard to the September 30 referendum which was supposed to change the name of the Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia.

The coverage of the vote was overly dramatic: At stake, it was said, is the expansion of NATO and the European Union into the Balkans. There was also the usual accusations of Russian meddling.

The Macedonian capital of Skopje, not a top destination otherwise, saw a flurry of foreign A-listers on a mission to make the locals cast their ballot in support of the ground-breaking deal resolving the decades-old name dispute with Greece.

But the referendum failed to deliver the much-desired result. Just about 37 percent of eligible voters turned up at the polling station, well below the 50-percent threshold needed to make the outcome valid.

Why did the referendum fail?

As most Balkan watchers knew in advance, the referendum was a tall order, to start with, and its precedents were hardly encouraging. A plebiscite on redrawing municipal borders, a highly-charged subject in the ethnically mixed post-Yugoslav country, flopped in November 2004, as turnout reached just 26 percent. The Social Democrat government at the time called for a boycott to thwart Macedonian nationalists who had initiated the referendum to block the empowerment of the Albanian community. 

This time around the tables were turned. The Social Democrats led by Zoran Zaev pushed for a referendum on the tPrespa Agreement signed with Greece in June in which Macedonia agreed to change its name to Northern Macedonia. 

But the opposition, as well as President Gjorge Ivanov, called for a boycott. The centre-right VMRO-DPMNE’s leader Hristijan Mickoski formally called on party members and sympathisers to make their own choice. 

Yet it is no mystery that the bulk of VMRO’s nationalist grassroots chose to stay at home, heeding the call of the #??j??????? (“I boycott”) campaign on social media. 

The takeaway both in 2004 and today is that no referendum could ever go through if one of the two big political forces in Macedonia does not approve of it.

Added to that, was the indifference of part of the Albanian community, which is traditionally strongly pro-NATO and EU. Turnout in some locales where Albanians are the majority, like the villages of Arachinovo and Saraj near the capital Skopje, was well above the national average. But in other places numbers were relatively low. Macedonian Albanians living in Western Europe also ignored the vote.

The reasons for this ambivalence within the community which makes up about 30 percent of the Macedonian population are complex: From the criticism of the referendum by Zijadin Sela, leader of the Alliance of the Albanians, the third largest Albanian party in parliament, to the heated debates in the local Albanian media whether the Prespa Agreement’s stipulation that the nationality of the state will be “Macedonian” degrades their ethnic rights or not.

The treaty uses “nationality” in the sense of “citizenship”. Yet in the campaign, the government framed the deal with Greece as an act of recognition of Macedonian (ethnic) nationhood and language, in order to counter critics who decried the change of name as high treason.

What happens next?

Well, the Prespa Agreement is not dead, despite the insistence of the boycott camp that the failed referendum means just that. The great majority of Macedonian citizens either abstained or said “no”, they contend.

Zaev’s counterargument is that more than 91 percent voted in favour of changing the country’s name to North Macedonia and of joining EU and NATO (the two issues were bundled together in the referendum question).

Both the EU and the US government are weighing in heavily on the side of the Macedonian government. To them, Macedonians have clearly voiced their support for the country’s integration into the West, notably joining NATO which could happen as soon as next year. Coordinated messaging after the vote suggests that both Zaev and his Western allies were prepared in the event the referendum failed.

Despite the outcome, the main political battle is still to be fought. Formally, Macedonia has to amend its constitution in order to change its name. That could only be done with a parliamentary vote. The referendum, as Zaev reminded everyone, was of advisory rather than legally-binding nature. Together with the Albanian parties, the Social Democrats hold 71 out of 120 seats in the legislature. That is nine seats short of the 2/3 majority required to change the constitution.

That gives leverage to the opposition VMRO-DPMNE. Its leader Hristijan Mickoski has come under pressure from centre-right forces in the EU, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who paid a visit to Skopje ahead of the vote along with a host of Western dignitaries.

But he is in a tough spot. On the one hand, the party is committed to the EU and NATO. It was under its watch that Macedonia started to move towards membership in the Alliance in 1999 and signed an EU association agreement in 2001. Yet VMRO-DPMNE’s electorate is mostly beholden to rampant nationalism, including the cult of the ancient Macedon kingdom of Alexander the Great nurtured in the decade when the party ruled the land with Nikola Gruevski as its supremo.

Mickoski will find it hard to square the circle and please everyone, including Gruevski who is still thought to be in control behind the scenes.

If Mickoski holds firm against pressure from the West and Zaev and prevents defections from the VMRO-DPMNE caucus, there will be early elections, the outcome of which would be anyone’s guess.

VMRO-DPMNE’s core electorate appears to be intact, although the party lost power in 2017 after a wave of anti-government protests. Mickoski could rally the faithful behind the flag and challenge Zaev. But unless he wins by a very high margin, it will be difficult for him to find an Albanian partner for a new coalition.  

It was the Albanian parties’ reluctance to engage with VMRO-DPMNE last year that handed power to the Social Democrats. Zaev meanwhile would hope to gain additional seats in parliament. In December 2016, his party was in opposition. Now it controls many levers of power, including the all-important public sector jobs. The Social Democrats have the EU and the US on their side as well.

In short, there is much uncertainty over what the next parliament might look like if there are fresh elections.

The referendum was just a prologue. Now the chips are down and the real action is set to begin. And despite the speculations of some pundits, this will not be about Russian mischief or the Western mission to turn (North) Macedonia into a success story.

Whether Zaev succeeds in bringing his country into NATO and the EU or not depends very much on his skills to outflank other wheelers and dealers in this small Balkan republic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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