KICEVO: Macedonians must choose between a new name or a future of isolation and instability, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told AFP ahead of a September 30 referendum on the issue.
The proposed change, which would rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia, is Zaev’s effort to end a 27-year-old dispute with Greece and usher his Balkan nation into NATO and the European Union.
Long seen as one of Europe’s most stubborn deadlocks, the name row is a tussle over history, identity and land.
Athens has blocked the former Yugoslav republic from joining NATO and the EU since 1991 because it considers the country’s name an encroachment on its own province called Macedonia.
Greeks also accuse Skopje of appropriating their history and culture, notably by erecting huge monuments to Alexander the Great, the king of ancient Macedon.
But there was a breakthrough between Zaev and Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras in July — a rare detente in a region tangled in complex disagreements.
Zaev must now convince the country of 2.1 million people to accept the new name despite a widespread feeling that they have been bullied by Greece.
A pro-Europe politician who helped topple a nationalistic government, Zaev has framed the name-change as a painful but historic opportunity for Macedonia to link arms with the West.
If the deal unravels, it will mean “hopelessness, total isolation of the country, probably another chapter of insecurity and instability in the whole region”, the 43-year-old told AFP after a campaign speech in the western city of Kicevo.
Alternatively, a ‘yes’ vote could make the accord a model for other regional disputes, said Zaev, an economist who has sought to revamp Macedonia’s foreign relations since coming to power more than one year ago.
“Other types of identity problems can be solved through deals like this,” he said.
Zaev and his Social Democrats party must tread lightly to avoid inflaming nationalists who feel they are being robbed of their identity.
He has avoided uttering the new name during townhall-style debates around the country.
“North” is also nowhere to be seen on government billboards that encourage the public to “Go vote for a European Macedonia”.
The referendum question itself asks: “Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”
Zaev is trying to reach the majority of Macedonians — 80 percent, he says — who want to join those Western institutions.