Referendum To Change Macedonia's Name Falls Short Of Voter Requirement

Oct 1, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 9:03 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Republic of Macedonia may no longer be able to call itself that. NATO and the European Union say if the country is going to join their ranks, they have to change their name to North Macedonia. This comes after a veto from their neighbor Greece, which claims the name Macedonia belongs to their hero Alexander the Great. In a referendum Sunday, Macedonians overwhelmingly approved the name change, but turnout was so low it may not matter. Joanna Kakissis reports from the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING WHISTLE)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Retired lawyer Vladimir Kavadarkov (ph) chants his country's name outside Parliament. He wants to scream it from the rooftops. Macedonia, not North Macedonia.

VLADIMIR KAVADARKOV: Our name is our soul, dignity and identity. And we don't like to lose this.

KAKISSIS: Kavadarkov has joined dozens camping out for months next to a statue of Prometheus. They boycotted Sunday's name change referendum despite pressure from European and even American leaders.

KAVADARKOV: We like to go in European Union and NATO but with head up and dignified, not with heads down.

KAKISSIS: Do you feel like you've lost your chance to be in NATO and the European Union by boycotting?

KAVADARKOV: No. I think that if they don't accept us dignified, with our identity, we shall turn out on Eurasia - Russia, China, India, Iran - because they recognize us with our authentic name.

KAKISSIS: And he claims most Macedonians support his view, since only about 37 percent of voters even bothered casting a ballot on the name change.

(APPLAUSE)

KAKISSIS: Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev offered a different view. His supporters cheered when he arrived in the ballroom of a luxury hotel to declare victory. He pointed out 90 percent of those who cast ballots support the name change his government worked out with Greece.

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PRIME MINISTER ZORAN ZAEV: (Through translator) I know, the political opposition knows and the citizens know that there cannot be any better agreement with Greece. There cannot be any alternative to Macedonia's membership in NATO and the EU.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Others also have hope. Political analyst Ljupcho Petkovski (ph) watches a group of boys play soccer outside his office. He says he still expects Macedonian politicians to back the deal.

LJUPCHO PETKOVSKI: It's going to be more difficult than expected, but it's still going to happen.

KAKISSIS: He says Macedonian politicians want strong ties with the West, and the West wants to protect Macedonia from the Kremlin.

PETKOVSKI: Russia does not have, you know, a clear, coherent foreign policy in the Balkans, but they have a policy of disruption. They want to disrupt the political dynamics, the political processes.

KAKISSIS: Russian meddling was blamed for the referendum's low turnout. But Eva Ellereit, who runs the Macedonia office of a German think tank, also senses fatigue with the EU, which sometimes sends mixed signals on membership for Balkan countries.

EVA ELLEREIT: There were many people just tired and frustrated with the past disappointments and just not believing in the process anymore.

KAKISSIS: Tanja Kostoski (ph), a 40-year-old nurse, is still a believer. She voted yes of the name change at her precinct, a school named after Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. Maybe the EU can help Macedonia develop its economy, she says, so people can make more than $400 a month, the average wage here.

TANJA KOSTOSKI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "And I don't care so much about a name," she says. "My name is Tanja, but I don't want to be a Tanja without money or prospects."

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Skopje, Macedonia.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, we mistakenly referred to Prometheus as the Greek god of fire. In fact, Prometheus was one of the Titans, whom Webster's New World College Dictionary defines as "a race of giant deities who are overthrown by the Olympian gods." Prometheus, Webster's adds, stole fire from heaven "for the benefit of mankind" and was punished by Zeus – who chained Prometheus to a rock "where a vulture (or eagle) comes each day to eat his liver, which grows back each night."]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "CAROUSEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.