Today’s landmark plebiscite held in Macedonia could propel the former Yugoslav republic into the so called mainstream, potentially opening the door to the nation’s entry into NATO and the European Union(EU). Equally so, a ‘No’ vote could confine the country to relative isolation and obscurity, although comparisons made by Skopje’s mayor to seclusion on the world’s stage equal to that of North Korea are obviously wide of the mark, and designed to instill uncertainty and fear.
A referendum like never before, the opinion of Macedonia’s electorate is being sought from a question loaded with far-reaching implications for the fledgling state. A stand-alone ballot paper question soliciting the desire, or otherwise, to join NATO and the EU would presumably see an overwhelming vote in favour of doing so. There is though one, not insignificant proviso to being absorbed into the two big boys’ clubs: Macedonia, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia(FYROM), to give its full, admittedly unwieldy internationally recognized title, is expected to change its name to North Macedonia.
If you therefore vote for one aspect of the referendum, you must accept the other. Not only should both questions be separate, there is a strong argument for there being two, unconnected referenda, to evaluate the Macedonian opinion on such future-defining decisions.
The uninitiated will rightly ask how things have come to such an apotheosis. Neighbouring Greece, with all its seismic financial problems, continually sought to divert attention from the more important issues it faced by failing to recognize Macedonia, not as a sovereign state, but for it to exist using a name that conflicts with its own historic northern province bordering the nation of the same appellation. Specious claims of feeling threatened by the potential of a land-grab by Macedonia have fueled Athens’ hysterical position, precipitating its constant blocking of Macedonia’s desire to enter the international community mainstream. Effectively held to ransom by Greece, Macedonia is seemingly taking the path of least resistance to realize its goals, but in reality the unacceptable demands of one sovereign state against another has, if anything, created division and instability the Balkan region can well do without.
Russia continues to flex its muscles in the region, keen to draw its perceived sphere of influence in the Balkans eastwards, rather than the likes of Serbia and Macedonia opting for a more westernized outlook with NATO and the EU. Accusations are currently flying regarding Russian interference in the build up to today’s referendum, although the truth is somewhat clouded by Moscow’s position as the world’s current unassailable bete noire. The dim view taken of Russia’s supposed malign intrusion into the affairs of other nations has though surely drawn attention away from Greece’s behaviour, more akin to bullying, blackmail, and coercion.
The international community have descended upon Skopje in recent weeks, keen to bring Macedonia into the fold and win hearts and minds before the referendum. Nothing has been said of Greece’s outrageous chutzpah demanding a nation change its name, a scenario that cannot be envisaged being accepted or taking place anywhere else in the world. It is one thing for a state to voluntarily change its name, post-independence, to distance itself from the past, but for it to be made a condition for so-called advancement on the world stage is unsettling, and may set an unwelcome precedent.
The veto Greece has continually exercised to prevent Macedonia from moving forward as it wishes should not have been able to wield so much influence. If Macedonia satisfies the myriad conditions needed to join the EU and NATO then that is by what is should be judged. For it to even consider such a far-reaching and circuitous route to the international stage’s top tables, let alone load the plebiscite’s question with such a condition, gives hope to other country’s that they too can bully their way to getting what they want.
Currently embroiled in interminable Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, the European Union needs all the good publicity it can get. Accepting Macedonia into the fold under such circumstances gives it little credit, and ultimately betrays its desire to bring more of Europe under its auspices, however that may transpire.
The European Union should only accept new entries adjudged against its Copenhagen criteria, and not because one state has acquiesced to the blandishments of another. What if Macedonia, after changing its name, cannot fulfill the EU’s benchmarks; will it then be able to revert back to its previous title, albeit one that does it few favours? Far from accepting Macedonia only once it has bowed to Greece’s wishes, the EU shouldn’t even recognize today’s vote, let alone a potential ‘Yes’ outcome.