The result of Sunday’s referendum in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on whether to accept a name deal with Greece provided a “crucial political benefit” for its prime minister despite a low voter turnout, Nikos Xydakis, an influential parliamentary representative in the Greek house, told EURACTIV.com.
Xydakis, a representative for the ruling Syriza party, acknowledged that the participation in FYROM was low. But numerically, about 625,000 voters went to the ballots, of which 550,000 voted in favour, and this is politically crucial for Fyrom’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, he said.
“The ‘yes’ vote is a big number and this gives Zaev a crucial political benefit,” Xydakis, a former alternate minister of foreign affairs, told EURACTIV.
“The numbers could be higher but Zaev now has a critical mass that will help him get the deal to the parliament and pursue the constitutional changes provided under the Prespes agreement,” he added.
Zaev said he would proceed to a parliamentary vote to change the name of the country to Republic of Northern Macedonia and resolve a long-standing dispute with Greece.
Asked if he was optimistic that Zaev will manage to convince part of the opposition, he replied it was possible considering that the opposition’s resistance is not that strong compared to the period when the name deal initiative was launched.
“Zaev has already come a long way. He lacks 11 parliamentary votes; otherwise, he said he would go for snap elections. In such an event, these 500,000 votes, which are in favour of joining NATO and the EU, will follow Zaev.”
The Greek opposition
After the name change deal is approved in FYROM’s parliament, it will be Greece’s turn to green-light it too.
In Greece, the opposition parties, conservative New Democracy (EPP) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), oppose the agreement and have vowed to reject it.
They are both in contrast with the official line of their political families at the EU level.
Joseph Daul, president of the European People’s Party (EPP), has openly supported the deal. However, the group leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, has not made his position clear.
EURACTIV.com asked Weber’s office for a comment but no reply was provided by the time of this article’s publication.
Greek government spokesperson Dimitris Tzanakopoulos hit at New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis over his stance on the issue.
“With his attitude, Mitsotakis strengthens nationalism in our neighbouring country, as (opposition party) VMRO’s nationalism strengthens nationalism in Greece. They are two sides of the same coin, New Democracy and VMRO, as one does not exist without the other,” Tzanakopoulos emphasised.
Another headache for Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras is that his junior coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks (Anel), also oppose the deal.
Tsipras has said that the deal will be backed by the majority of the parliament and that the government’s unity won’t be at stake due to Anel’s stance.
Xydakis said that the Macedonian name dispute has for a long time offered reasons for internal political games in both countries.
“I doubt that the rhetoric they [opposition parties] have today will remain the same in six months or two years; many things will change, both because the agreement will advance, but also because the political balances in the neighbouring country will change, and to a lesser extent in ours.”
In the meantime, Moscow has voiced hope that the process will respect the laws.
“We are closely following [the developments] and, of course, we believe that all procedures should remain within the framework of the law,” Russia’s Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia is not opposing the name deal between Skopje and Athens, but feels uncomfortable with the idea that FYROM will join NATO.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras spoke in favour of the Prespes Agreement and the name change deal, noting that the US is his country’s best ally in the region.
“If we want to protect our national interest, upgrade the role of the country, and make it part of the solution, not part of the problem — as it was three years ago — this means we should create alliances. And the best strategic ally in the region is the US,” the leftist leader said.