The Macedonian Referendum and What Comes Next?
The consultative referendum for the Agreement with the Republic of Greece has been one of the essential questions to determine the future of Macedonia and its citizens after the referendum in 1991, when the Macedonian citizens voted for independence from the Yugoslav Federation. The referendum question was: "Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the Agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” Even during the formulation of the referendum question, a debate was initiated, followed by a serious political conflict that arose in terms of whether the agreement with Greece should be related to the integration in the EU and NATO, or the question should have referred to the Agreement only.
Before the campaign started, there had been two political viewpoints in regard to the referendum. The Government of the Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) led the former. The two parties led a campaign for the Macedonian citizens to support the Agreement with Greece. In addition, SDSM led a campaign that invited the citizens to vote and not to boycott the referendum. The Albanian opposition parties shared the same viewpoint. The latter, led by VMRO-DPMNE, constantly talked about the damages that the Agreement could cause, and certain members of the party leadership were agitating for boycotting the referendum, although, according to the official announcement, it gave its members and supporters freedom to vote upon their convictions. It seems that this decision was made because of the division among the VMRO-DPMNE leadership into mainly three groups: Agreement and Referendum supporters, opponents to the Agreement and supporters of the Referendum at the same time, and opponents to the Agreement who asked for a Referendum boycott. Smaller political parties and intellectuals who had diverse political ideologies also supported the boycotting position. Among them were the left-wing party “Levica” (Left), which tended to be the loudest and publicly supported by several university professors and the pro-Russian party “Edinstvena Makedonija” (United Macedonia). Although they all had different political ideologies, these political ideology groups were informally united under the initiative “I am boycotting”, whose supporters were mostly members and sympathizers of VMRO-DPMNE. That could be seen from the decision made by the majority of the VMRO-DPMNE leadership not to vote. In addition, it is worth mentioning that based on the campaign and according to the messages that the parties directed to the people, we got the impression that the people voted for a party instead of the Agreement and its content.
Although the referendum was consultative and its results were not obligatory for the government, the census of 50% plus 1 vote was an important entry into the political debate and the referendum campaign. On one side, SDSM expected that getting more people to vote would put pressure on the opposition party to support the constitutional changes that were necessary for the implementation of the Agreement. By getting less people to vote, the opposing party hoped to show that the Macedonians were not supporting the Agreement.
On the voting day, there were 36.89%, or 666.344 votes out of 1.806.336 registered voters. 91.46%, or 609.427 voted for, while 37.687 voted against. Right after the referendum, from both standpoints, the referendum showed the nation’s will. Each party interpreted the nation’s will in a different way and according to its political needs. Stemming from the fact that more than 600.000 citizens supported the Agreement, SDSM announced that the majority of the citizens supported the Agreement. On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE announced that the unfulfilled census made the referendum unsuccessful, while the Macedonians discarded the “harmful and bad” Agreement with the Republic of Greece. In addition, they added to this that 1.200.000 citizens did not support the Agreement. The “Levica” also shared the same viewpoint about the unsuccessful referendum. They said that the agreement with Greece was not valid due to the small number of voters.
How did it happen for all the parties to interpret the non-contradicted results in a different manner?
By choosing a selective approach, each party could interpret the results in its own way and based on its political needs. On the one hand, the Government skillfully downplayed the low turnout and focused on the strong support given by the people who voted. In addition, the consultative character of the Referendum gave an opportunity to the Government to continue with the initiative of changing the Statute and implementing the Agreement. On the other hand, the argument related to the numbers, i.e. 1.200.000 citizens did not support the Agreement, is arbitrary and not serious, considering the fact that in Macedonia we have never had more than 1.100.000 citizens voting with cases of less than 1.000.000 voters. Simultaneously, VMRO-DPMNE ignores the fact that those who did not vote are considered not to have any opinion, only the ones who voted count, which leaves up to the institutions to decide. The “Levica” and non VMRO-DPMNE supporters of the initiative “I’m boycotting”, similarly to VMRO-DPMNE, claimed that the Referendum was unsuccessful, which put into a question the validity of the Agreement, ignoring the consultative character of the Referendum. This made the process of implementation of the Agreement through the foreseen changes in the Constitution even more complicated. Namely, the opponents of the Agreement got strong arguments to enforce the pressure with the government to give up the deal with Greece.
What were the reasons for a very low voting turnout?
It seems that there are four main reasons for that: the strong nationalistic rhetoric, rejecting the name change under the pressure of a neighboring country, as well as the corruption of the current government and the European politics towards the region. A detailed analysis could further increase the number of reasons.
The corruption scandals where the people involved were a part of, or close to the Government, caused serious reactions in the Macedonian society, especially because some of the statements and actions of the Government reminded of the acting and practicing power of the previous one. Many citizens were not willing and refused to vote because of the corrupton scandals. They thought that voting in the referendum would mean voting in support of the Government, not for the Agreement itself.
The European politics towards the region and the indecisiveness in terms of joining the Balkans to the EU followed by different statements against EU enlargement, as well as applying double standards, has led to a development of an anti-EU rhetoric of the Macedonian political and intellectual elite. At the same time, this attitude towards the name dispute has been present since the Lisbon Declaration of the Members of the European Union in 1992, when the Republic of Macedonia was to be recognized if only the name of the country changed, thus the new name must not contain the term Macedonia. We should add to this that the EU has made a few decisions or interpretations in terms of the Macedonian integration and the identity of the ethnic Macedonians that provoked strong reactions among ethnic Macedonians. All that had a motivational influence on the nationalist and anti-European circles in the Republic of Macedonia, something that Russia tries to make use of in order to promote its politics in the region and have a bigger influence. The nationalistic frustrations with the ethnic Macedonians become even bigger if we take into consideration the politics of blocking of the Republic of Greece and the official negation of the identity by the ethnic Macedonians, supported by the Republic of Bulgaria at one point (both are members of EU and NATO). One should not forget that the dominant historiography in Macedonia develops a myth for the negative role of the European countries in the history of the Macedonian people, which add fuel to the anti-European rhetoric. All this is due to the enforcement of the nationalistic and anti-European rhetoric with the Macedonian politicians and intellectuals. They were the ones, who were not capable of, and did not feel the responsibility to impede the things that brought Macedonia and the Macedonians in an even more complex political situation of inner partitions, self-isolation, but also an international isolation.
It is exactly the nationalism and the nationalistic rhetoric that were one of the main reasons and the basis for the argumentations of the opponents to the name deal. That served as a motive for many citizens to accept the rhetoric of a referendum boycott. However, one should make a difference between the opponents to the agreement who simply did not want to accept the name of the country to be changed because of the request of the governments of the Republic of Greece that the terms Macedonia and Macedonian could only belong to Greece and the Greek people. That attitude is completely legitimate and should not be defined as nationalistic. However, in the major part of the argumentation against the Agreement, the opponents of the name deal used arguments that resulted from the nationalistic rhetoric and the interpretation of the past. The nationalistic rhetoric can be clearly seen by the way in which the Agreement was interpreted and the frequency of usage of these interpretations in the political speeches in the referendum campaign. Namely, in the political speeches, the debates and the social networks, one could hear and read that with the Agreement “the Macedonians are losing their identity”, they “annul themselves”, they become “Northern Macedonians”, that “Macedonia gives up its history’ or “a part of the Macedonian history becomes alienated”, “the terms Macedonia and Macedonians will stop being used” etc.
The Agreement stipulations (articles 1 and 7) do not forbid usage of the terms Macedonia and Macedonian, they do not negate the identity of the Macedonians or their right to identify themselves as such, do not “alienate” or enable “selling” of the history of the Macedonian people, and they do not stipulate self-annulment of the Macedonians. The only controversial political intervention in the interpretation of the past is made in the Article 7 paragraph 2 that states that the history of the ancient Macedonia, its cultural heritage and symbols belong exclusively to Greece, while Article 8 paragraphs 1 and 2 limit the usage of the symbols from the historical and cultural heritage of the ancient Macedonia. This gives an exclusive right to Greece to identify itself with this past and to maintain its historical and political myth about the ancient origins of the Greek nation. This does not mean that Macedonia gives up its history, but it gives up a historical myth, the ancient origins of the contemporary Macedonians. Unlike these stipulations, the Agreement critics want to show that the Agreement itself is straightforwardly against the Macedonian identity and history by giving unfounded and manipulative interpretations. In that way, the interpretations will enkindle the emotions within the ethnic Macedonians and cause fear and paranoia that are the basics for spreading of nationalism and nationalist rhetoric.
This nationalist rhetoric continued after the Referendum. In the meantime, this rhetoric should have made the political pressure against the Government of the Republic of Macedonia to withdraw from the Agreement. In addition, before and after the Referendum, the rhetoric of the opponents of the name deal has abounded in nationalistic statements and speeches that the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, i.e. the ethnic Macedonians are divided into traitors (supporters of the Agreement) and patriots (opponents to the Agreement). However, two weeks after the Referendum, the Government and the majority government managed to ensure 2/3 i.e. 80 members of the parliament who voted for starting a procedure of changes in the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia that will lead to a change of the current constitutional name to The Republic of North Macedonia.
Right after the voting, the opposition led by VMRO-DPMNE blamed the government for bribing and buying its members to vote for the constitutional changes. Moreover, during the voting, the opposition supporters who decided to vote “against” stood up so that the people see who the supporters of the Agreement and the country’s name change are. Along with the rhetoric of traitors and patriots, that was the most symbolic way to show the “traitors”. Furthermore, on October 23rd, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickovski, in his speech on the occasion of the day of the foundation of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization that fought against the Ottoman Empire, blamed once again his political opponents and called the seven members of the Parliament from the VMRO-DPMNE who voted for constitutional changes “traitors”. In addition, in his speech, he used statements from people from the past that were in line with this division into traitors and patriots. The aim is to dehumanize all people who have a different opinion than the opinion of the party leadership.
This aggressive rhetoric clearly defines the direction in which the politics of VMRO-DPMNE will go in relations to the Agreement. It is obvious that VMRO-DPMNE will take over the role of a name protector and will create rhetoric where all those who vote FOR the Agreement with Greece will be defined as traitors or “those who sold the name”. Similar to this, in 1995, with the case of changing the state’s flag, the supporters for change were blamed to “have sold” the flag. In that way, the VMRO-DPMNE leadership gets the right to be patriots and the right to define the Macedonian national ideology and interest according to their political interests based on the interpretations of the past, the political situation, and according to the party leadership’s personal needs. If we put the political clash aside, the politicians have social and political responsibility and duty to formulate their political speeches carefully so that they avoid making divisions between the ethnic Macedonians, as well as between the Macedonians and the Albanians on ethnic basis that can harm the relations with neighboring nations.