Moscow on Monday (1 October) said low turnout in the referendum on Macedonia’s name change renders it invalid, adding that lack of interest means that the population has boycotted a decision “forced” upon it.
“The turnout of 36.8% does not permit to call the vote successful and unequivocally shows that Macedonian voters preferred to boycott the decisions roughly forced upon Skopje and Athens,” a statement by the Russian foreign ministry said.
It said European politicians had “participated in a propaganda campaign and meddled in domestic affairs of this Balkan country without shame”.
Macedonia held a consultative referendum on Sunday on a plan to rename the country to North Macedonia – a move that would end a decades-long row with Greece, which promised in return to drop its objections to Macedonia joining the European Union and NATO.
While over 90% of those who voted supported the plan, which has an advisory status, only a third of the electorate showed up to vote.
The Russian foreign ministry condemned the move: “There is a clear drive to ensure Skopje’s entanglement in NATO despite the will of the Macedonian people.”
Moscow is traditionally wary of NATO’s enlargement in Eastern Europe. The alliance’s 1999 bombings of its ally Serbia caused a major rift in Russia’s relations with the West at the time.
In recent days, Moscow has been leveraging its influence in the Western Balkans. Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Sunday, ahead of elections in Republika Srpska on 7 October.
— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) October 1, 2018
And on Tuesday (2 October), Putin is due to receive his most important ally in the region, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
— Sputnik (@SputnikInt) September 30, 2018
Despite the low turnout, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev vowed to push ahead with the name change on Monday.
“More than 90% of the total votes are ‘yes’, so now it is parliament’s turn to confirm the will of the majority,” Zaev told AFP.
But Hristijan Mickoski, the head of the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party (EPP-affiliated), pointed to the low turnout, saying the government had “lost its legitimacy”.
He said voters had responded to calls to boycott the referendum. He called on the government to “respect the will of the people”.
President Gjorge Ivanov, allied with the opposition, also weighed in, claiming “the people have rejected the accord” with Greece.
Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, agreed in June on the name North Macedonia to end a decades-long dispute.
Tsipras’ government is of the opinion that the referendum has provided a “crucial political benefit” for Zaev despite the low turnout.
The next step is a vote in parliament. Zaev’s ruling coalition has 69 MPs in the 120-strong assembly.
To gather the required two-thirds majority Zaev needs to convince at least 11 MPs from the opposition to back the move.
Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska said Monday that the government would give itself a week to rally support from opposition deputies.
“If not, then we will organise early parliamentary elections,” she told a press conference and November has already been touted as a possible date.