Macedonia may be stuck outside the EU and NATO after its people refused to change the country's name

GettySupporters of the movement to boycott the referendum vote celebrated in the street in Skopje, Macedonia, on Sunday after election officials announced low voter-turnout figures.
  • Macedonia was on the cusp of changing its name to North Macedonia – but a referendum on the issue failed to pass Sunday because of low turnout.
  • The country’s name is a source of contention with its neighbour Greece, which has blocked Macedonia’s past attempts to join the European Union and NATO.
  • The Macedonian government is now trying to force a name change anyway with a two-thirds majority vote in parliament.

Macedonians have rejected an attempt to change the name of their nation to North Macedonia, which could mean their country will remain outside the regional power blocs of NATO and the European Union.

A referendum over the weekend on the proposed change failed because too few people voted. Though 90% of voters favoured the change, the low turnout of 35% invalidated the result.

The name change was an attempt by Macedonia’s government to break a diplomatic logjam with Greece, which has a region called Macedonia and objects to its northern neighbour using the name.

MacedoniaGoogle MapsMacedonia is north of Greece.

Greek authorities have repeatedly voted down Macedonia’s attempts to join both NATO and the EU over the dispute, which has had a negative impact on the country’s security and economy.

The dispute goes back to ancient times. Greece objects to Macedonia claiming elements of regional heritage including its association with Alexander the Great, who founded the Macedonian Empire around 300 BC.

Though the kingdom called itself Macedonia, its capital was in modern-day Greece.

The Greek government has said that if the country swaps its name to North Macedonia, then Greece will stop blocking its NATO and EU accessions.

Greece’s objection has meant the UN referred to the young country as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” after it declared independence when Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991.

Greece vetoed Macedonia’s attempt to join NATO in 2008 and has also blocked its EU membership ambitions.

Sunday’s vote was only an advisory referendum, which means Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government can still try to get his parliament to vote through the changes, CBS reported.

For this he needs two-thirds of MPs to support him. Zaev has threatened to call early elections if he can’t pass the change, the BBC reported.

“I am determined to take Macedonia into the EU and NATO,”Zaev said, according to the BBC. “It is time to support European Macedonia.”

Many Western politicians also favour a yes vote. They include US Defence Secretary James Mattis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Stoltenberg tweeted Sunday that he welcomed the yes vote.

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