After ‘failing a referendum’, who gets to use the name ‘Macedonia’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev holds a press conference after the results in the Macedonian referendum to solve the name issue with Greece following the Prespa agreement, in Skopje, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 30 September 2018. [Nake Batev/EPA/EFE]

Following the recent setback in the referendum held in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s decision to proceed with new elections might be the only way forward, writes Neophytos Loizides.

Neophytos Loizides is a professor in international conflict analysis at the University of Kent.

A referendum that secures  94.18% ‘yes’ votes yet only 36.89% participation will always be hard to judge.

Technically, last week’s vote for Northern Macedonia has been unsuccessful since those supporting the Prespa Agreement [between Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Tsipras] have failed to secure the 50% turnout required by the constitution.

At the heart of the dispute leading to last summer’s agreement is whether any one of the sides has the right to monopolise the name, symbols and heritage of the region or whether those could be constructively shared.

Following the recent setback, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s decision to proceed with new elections might be the only way forward.

Clarity and public interest on the vote

The country will benefit from a renewed and clear mandate following the “battle of interpretations” that has emerged after the referendum. The fifty percent turnout quorum percentage appears to be very problematic in terms of the code of good practice of referendums set by the Council of Europe.

According to the Venice Commission, what is wrong with this technical requirement is that it “assimilates voters who abstain to those who vote no.” Although several countries, including Russia, have maintained similar provisions against the standards of the Council of Europe, this has become particularly problematic in the Republic today because of its large diaspora.

It is also an outdated provision; since this and other constitutions have been written, voters’ understanding of elections and participation norms have changed dramatically. More importantly, the country and the region cannot afford to be torn apart by multiple interpretations as to the meaning and outcome of the 30 September referendum.

A special case for peace referendums

Admittedly, both the international community used the threshold argument in the 2016 Orban migrant quota referendum to argue that the Hungarian PM failed to win a mandate and in 2004 in the Republic when moderates used a similar campaign to prevent nationalists from blocking the municipal decentralization associated with the Ohrid Agreement.

Yet those “spoiler referendums” are evidently different to international settlements on complex historical disputes. Because of the latter’s complexity but also long-term benefits, peace plans require perseverance, renegotiation and multiple attempts to secure citizen endorsement.

Colombia is an excellent case where leadership insisted for peace despite a ‘no’ vote in the referendum. Giving peace a (second) chance makes a reasonable moral and political case, particularly, if the initial vote could be disputed on technical grounds and importantly because recent experience suggests that peace referendums are inherently difficult to win.

One would not be able to know what the result could have been if the referendum was initiated by the anti-deal camp while the pro-Prespa supporters abstain as in 2004. It will be interesting to see if the opposition petitions another referendum against the constitutional amendment thus reversing the institutional rules in favour of Zaev’s government.

‘Voters remorse’  

It is very common that voters change their views between referendums and elections. Atikcan provides a number of reasons why this is a case in a second referendum while in our co-authored work Moore et al (2014), we argued that this is also the case with elections following referendums.

For instance, the Democratic Rally (DISY) in Cyprus had an exceptionally good round of elections despite failing to convince the public in the Annan Plan while the pro-agreement Ulster Unionist Party declined electorally despite the positive outcome in the Good Friday/Belfast 1998 referendum. Other examples include the Scottish National Party after the independence referendum and De Klerk’s National Party in South Africa.

A new vote will also allow a mandate to renegotiate Prespa. This could contradict the key messages in the referendum campaign as renegotiating might prove extremely difficult. Nonetheless, PM Zaev has the best chance for a renegotiation.

Both Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis will probably campaign in similar terms, therefore this could give yes campaigners a degree of flexibility.

On the one hand, the side that first asks for renegotiation will be in a weaker position. On the other, there are alternative reconfigurations of trade-offs both sides could explore and new methodologies are available to compare comprehensive packages in peace polls (a key weakness of the international mediation so far has been the failure to employ those as demonstrated in the very low levels of support in both sides).

No Plan B? 

Although ‘win-win improvements’ are still possible, it is wrong to assume that the current Prespa agreement favours disproportionately any of the two sides. A definite “no” from the republic will come at a very wrong time for its own interests and those of the EU. There is a fundamental geopolitical shift that anti-deal campaigners seem to have perhaps underestimated.

Greece is becoming more relevant to the West because of Turkey’s belligerence, the refugee crisis, and Brexit talks. A lesser known fact is that Greece and any other EU member will have a veto in any new agreement(s), if for instance the UK opts against a hard Brexit.

Some experts have pointed to the China/Taiwan model (i.e. hindering any future trade agreement between Greece or the EU with third countries, if not compliant with the country’s Macedonian naming positions).

Greek Macedonians, who are becoming increasingly more autonomous themselves, see these actions as legitimate within their struggle to protect their identity rights while Greece itself is approaching national elections in a few months with leading activists associated with the naming dispute now elevated in the high echelons of the main opposition party, the New Democracy.

This latter point also suggests the vulnerabilities of all sides, if efforts to handle this dispute are too soon abandoned.

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