The Referendum in Macedonia – A Positive Sign towards Change for the Balkans
30th September, 2018, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – The small Balkan country has been shaken by the political clashes as a result of the referendum initiated by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. The referendum was of such nature that it was inevitable to cause provocations. Following the results, the division between nationalists and those in favour of Euro-Atlantic integration became even greater, as the two opposing camps went on arguing who actually won on the referendum day. But the important thing to note is that the results indicate one thing for sure – 609 427 people in the Republic of Macedonia support NATO and EU integration and were dedicated enough to go out to the polling stations and vote. And this signifies some determination for change especially in the context of the current political climate on the Balkans.
The Balkan Peninsula is a region comprised of nations similar in culture, history and language. In spite of that, it has been often torn by clashes, battles, wars on territorial, historical, religious, and ethnic grounds. The Yugoslav Wars of Independence were the last wars on the European continent and they still linger in the minds of Europeans, young and old, with the brutality, number of deaths, and mostly with the lack of any actual reason behind them. Westerners often talk about the Balkans with a grin implying that it is a land of hatred, land of division, land where you dislike your neighbour just for the sake of it. Conversations about the Balkans often end up with the conclusion that war or confrontations there are inevitable and the different ethnic groups and peoples of the Balkans cannot coexist peacefully.
Nevertheless, in the past few years we see significantly increased cooperation between the Balkan countries and there is evident willpower by leaders to pursue good neighbourly relations and assistance. The Republic of Macedonia is one of the best examples for that. For 20 years, Macedonians were struggling to establish themselves as an equal to the rest of the Balkan countries due to their long-term name dispute with Greece, as well as the question for their identity, history and culture. But now we are witnessing a different Macedonia – we see Macedonian people who are able to look past nationalism and borders and rightfully assess what is the best option for their country. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev managed to achieve something that previous Macedonian leaders struggled to – he not only shook hands with the leaders of Greece and Bulgaria, determined to resolve any standing issues with them, but also managed to convince a large portion of the population into believing in the future in Macedonia.
What we witnessed during that referendum was an enormous amount of people who were willing to abolish the past, ignore what they have been told in history class or what Yugoslav leaders were telling them about their nation and identity, and went out on the streets to support actively the Euro-Atlantic path of their country. It does not matter that the referendum did not pass the 50% turnout threshold, as long as it is known that there are more than half a million people in Macedonia who are politically active, and they chose the path towards EU and NATO.
The result of the referendum indicated that Macedonia was on the right track when signing the Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria and the Prespa Agreement with Greece. PM Zaev did not ignore when help was offered from outside and he appreciated the efforts that have been done towards the future of Macedonia. Moreover, this referendum was the first actual indication from a Western Balkans country that it is dedicated to following the Euro-Atlantic way, after Montenegro was accepted into NATO. Macedonia has the opportunity to step hard on its feet and continue with an active and progressive work towards the one goal that they have been aiming to in the last 20 years.
Prime Minister Zaev now will need to persuade the Parliament into accepting the Constitutional amendments in order for the Prespa Agreement to be ratified. But the real challenge will be to convince the remaining part of the Macedonian population that boycotted the referendum that there is not alternative to the EU and NATO and that despite any differences there might be in the political sphere in Macedonia, no compromises should be made regarding the integration. And this referendum was the way to begin.
Mario Bikarski, Sofia Security Forum