Macedonia's Defense minister Radmila Sekerinska, left, and Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani give a news conference at the Government Building in Skopje, Macedonia, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. Macedonia's government faced a looming political battle Monday to push through a deal with Greece that would ultimately pave the way for NATO membership, after a referendum on the agreement won overwhelming support but with low voter turnout. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Macedonia leader faces political battle on name deal

October 01, 2018 - 9:50 am

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's government prepared for a political battle Monday to push through a deal with Greece that would ultimately pave the way for NATO membership, after the agreement won overwhelming support in a referendum with low voter turnout.

The European Union, NATO and the United States urged the small Balkan nation country to move forward with the next steps required to enact the deal. Macedonia's international partners have been eager to see the country join international institutions, in a region where Russia hasn't been keen on NATO picking up new members.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared Sunday's referendum a success, noting more than 90 percent of voters approved of the deal that would change the country's name to North Macedonia. In return, Greece would drop its longstanding objections to its northern neighbor being considered for NATO membership.

Zaev, who negotiated the agreement that had eluded his predecessors, said he would now move forward with the next step, which is seeking a two-thirds majority in the 120-member parliament for required constitutional amendments.

If the amendments do not pass, Zaev said he would have no choice but to call an early election.

Final results issued Monday showed 36.9 percent of registered voters cast ballots, with 91.4 percent supporting the deal.

But the State Electoral Commission cast doubt on the result.

Commission head Oliver Derkoski said the Macedonian Constitution stipulates a minimum 50 percent turnout for a referendum to be considered binding.

Derkoski said Monday the referendum could not be considered to have reached a decision "because more than a half the total number of voters registered in the voter list didn't cast ballots."

The government has insisted the turnout threshold was not relevant, saying it called the referendum consultatively to provide an indication of popular opinion. It also argued that the outcome was a valid reflection of voters' will, saying the more than 600,000 people who voted in favor of the deal was far more than the number that had voted for any politician in Macedonia's short history.

Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska told reporters Monday the government would spend seven to 10 days seeking the necessary support from lawmakers.

Lawmakers, Sekerinska said, "have no other option than to follow the vote of the majority of the country in order for this country to accelerate the process of acceding to both NATO and the European Union."

But opponents of the deal with Greece, who say it undermines national interests and had advocated for a boycott of the referendum, seized on the low turnout to interpret the result as a clear rejection of the agreement.

Political analyst Petar Arsovski said the referendum's outcome would deepen divisions in Macedonia.

"Unfortunately, as opposed to providing closure, the referendum still leaves the country in turmoil," Arsovski said, noting that on the one hand an overwhelming majority of those who voted approved of the deal, but turnout was low.

"I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to reach the deal with the opposition lawmakers over the constitutional changes and to continue with the next phase," Arsovski said. "I think Macedonia is entering into uncertainty and that the crisis will deepen."

The main opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE party reiterated its interpretation of the vote's result as being a clear rejection of the deal with Greece.

"The people have clearly sent a message to Zaev that he has no legitimacy to push this deal. Instead of manipulating he should face the reality and reject this agreement, which is at the expense of the Republic of Macedonia," it said in a statement Monday.

Macedonia's international partners called for parliamentary support for the deal.

"We urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said .

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted he expects "all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged the country's politicians "to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity."

He said on Twitter that NATO's door was still open to Macedonia "but all national procedures have to be completed."

The June deal with Greece aims to resolve a dispute dating from Macedonia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Greece, arguing its new neighbor's name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name, has blocked Macedonia's efforts to join NATO since then.

The agreement has faced vociferous opposition from a sizeable portion of the population on both sides of the border, with detractors saying their respective governments conceded too much to the other side.

Even if Zaev manages to win parliamentary support for the constitutional amendments, the deal faces other hurdles before it can be finalized.

Once Macedonia amends its constitution to ensure it doesn't contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece, the deal must be ratified by Greek parliament.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces problems of his own. His governing coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, oppose the deal and have vowed to vote against it, leaving him reliant on opposition support.

The Greek government said the low turnout was "troubling," but stressed the importance of the name deal clearing the next major obstacle.

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Greece would not lift its objections to Macedonia joining NATO or the EU unless Macedonia amends its constitution.

"Now it's up to (Macedonia's) parliament, and we hope that the move by Mr. Zaev's government to amend the constitution will succeed," Tzanakopoulos said.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.

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