Greece says opportunity to resolve Macedonia name issue must not be wasted

A woman holds a “Yes” poster during a rally in Tetovo Macedonia on Sept. 27 before this weekend’s referendum on changing Macedonia’s name

A woman holds a “Yes” poster during a rally in Tetovo Macedonia on Sept. 27 before this weekend’s referendum on changing Macedonia’s name

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has vowed to follow through with a change to the Balkan state's name as part of a deal to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece after a September 30 referendum on the move failed to secure a turnout of 50 percent, required to make the nonbinding vote valid.

Macedonia's prime minister says he will seek a vote in parliament to change his country's name in a bid to end a 27-year dispute with neighboring Greece and enable Macedonia to join North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

However, only a third of the 1.8 million-strong electorate voted.

Djose Tanevski was among the early voters in Skopje, the capital.

Its supporters mainly boycotted the vote in order to invalidate the result, and it says the failure to reach the threshold meant Macedonians had rejected the change.

Meanwhile, the European Union urged all sides to respect the result of Sunday's referendum in Macedonia.

Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian prime minister, will now seek to take the issue to parliament where he will need a two-thirds majority to implement the constitutional changes necessary for the deal to survive.

"This is a historic opportunity not only for reconciliation in the region, but also for decisively moving the country forward on its European Union path".

The Greek government has noted the "contradictory" results from Macedonia's referendum - overwhelming approval, but low voter turnout - on the two countries' deal to resolve a decades-long dispute over the Macedonia name. He and his coalition partners will need at least a dozen opposition MPs to back the move.

The Commission's director, Oliver Derkoski, told reporters that it was "clear a decision had not been made through this referendum".

"The government has lost its legitimacy, and the only thing remaining is to respect the will of the people", Mr Hristijan Mickoski, leader of the main centre-right opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, wrote on Facebook.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were among the Western officials who visited Macedonia in recent weeks to urge voters to mark "yes" on their ballots.

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The vote is an emotional moment for a country that has struggled for recognition of its name since 1991, when the former Yugoslav republic declared independence.

Athens argues that the name belongs exclusively to its own northern province called Macedonia, and accuses its Balkan neighbour of harbouring territorial ambitions. Ancient Greece's Macedonia stretched across both present-day countries and was the birthplace of Greek heroes, including Alexander the Great.

Zaev has billed the referendum as a painful but "historic" opportunity to break the 27-year-old stalemate.

Few Macedonians are enthused about the new name, saying they have been unfairly bullied by Greece.

The key clause is Article 7, which says the terms "Macedonia" and "Macedonian" refer to "a different historical context and cultural heritage" for each country.

But a desire to anchor their future to the West - and the economic prosperity that it could bring - has been a driving force behind the "yes" vote in one of Europe's poorest nations.

"Macedonia showed that the deal did not pass".

At home, those in favor of the deal say a desire for an European Union future is helping bind ethnic Macedonians with the Albanian minority, who are broadly pro-West.

The turnout figure was a setback for the government and for Western leaders who had pushed hard for a resounding popular mandate, although the governing party is confident it can muster the votes to approve the name change.

Biber also thinks it is important whether Russian Federation will challenge the outcome.

Commenting in the aftermath of the referendum in Macedonia, European Green Party co-chairs Reinhard Bütikofer and Monica Frassoni said: "After the national referendum in Macedonia, the country´s way towards North Atlantic Treaty Organisation membership and EU accession negotiations remains very hard".

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