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A September 30, 2018, referendum on changing Macedonia's name to the Republic of North Macedonia produced rival interpretations from the government and opposition. Despite voter turnout (37%) being lower than many expected, nearly 92% of those who voted approved changing the country's name to resolve a long-standing dispute with Greece and facilitate Macedonia's eventual membership in NATO and the European Union (EU). Based on this relatively high margin of victory, the government of Zoran Zaev claimed that the nonbinding referendum result was a clear mandate to move forward with a parliamentary vote on required constitutional changes. Yet many analysts believed the referendum's low turnout could bolster the opposition and ultimately jeopardize the agreement.
To the surprise of some observers, on October 19, Macedonia's parliament approved a motion to initiate the process of amending the country's constitution to incorporate provisions of the Prespa Agreement, a June 2018 agreement signed by the Macedonian and Greek foreign ministers whereby Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece would no longer object to Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, and both countries would promise to respect existing borders. The government secured the support of eight opposition members of parliament (MPs), including seven from the nationalist VMRO DPMNE, to reach the 80 votes required for a two-thirds majority. Although this vote is only the first step, observers see it as a crucial test of the Zaev government's ability to secure final passage of the amendments. The eight MPs who defied their parties' position on the Prespa Agreement declared that their further support depends on four conditions being met, the most controversial of which is a reconciliation measure that some view as a maneuver to amnesty VMRO DPMNE officials charged with abuse of office. If parliament does not pass the Prespa-related amendments in the final vote, some analysts believe it could be years before conditions are conducive to another Greek-Macedonian agreement on the name issue.
For nearly three decades, Greece has wielded its veto power to block Macedonia's NATO and EU membership despite generally positive assessments of Macedonia's qualifications. The bilateral dispute dates back to 1991, when Macedonia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia as the Republic of Macedonia. From Greece's perspective, Macedonia's use of the name implies territorial ambitions toward northern Greece reflecting its claim to the cultural heritage of ancient Macedonia. Greece continues to refer to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In 2017, Macedonia's new Social Democrat-led government prioritized renewed efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. The presence of new leaders at the bargaining table, along with EU and NATO support and positive signals from Athens, provided an opportunity to compromise over the name issue, as evidenced by the signing of the Prespa Agreement in June 2018.
Nationalist protests broke out in both countries over the agreement. Prior to the referendum, key officials from Macedonia's opposition VMRO DPMNE party, including President Gjorge Ivanov and party leader Hristijan Mickoski, accused the government of betraying Macedonia.
For the Prespa Agreement to advance, Macedonia's parliament must pass constitutional amendments that incorporate its requirements, including the name change. Despite external pressure from U.S., NATO, and European officials, the VMRO DPMNE's opposition to the agreement remained steadfast. Some analysts believe that the party is loath to give a political victory to the Zaev government and instead hopes to author a more palatable agreement with Greece down the road, even though it could be years before this is feasible.
The amendment process entails three steps. As noted above, the first step was accomplished on October 19. Second, a simple majority of MPs must confirm the draft changes. Third, after a period of public debate, two-thirds of parliament must approve the final amendments.
For now, the Zaev government remains cautiously optimistic that constitutional amendments will be secured under the current parliament. Going forward, the government's key challenge will be retaining its partial opposition support and maintaining the momentum for change until the final round of voting, which could be months away.
If Macedonia's constitutional amendments pass, the next step would be ratification by Greece's parliament. The issue is also contentious in Greece, where nationalist protests and accusations of betrayal have mirrored the situation in Macedonia. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces opposition to the deal from his government's junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, as well as from the conservative opposition. Most recently, Greece's Foreign Minister, a key supporter of the agreement, resigned amid tensions with Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who opposes it. Tsipras declared his continued support for the agreement and has assumed the Foreign Affairs portfolio on an interim basis.
U.S. Administrations and many Members of Congress have long supported Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration and backed its compromise with Greece to resolve the name dispute. A U.S. diplomat has been the key U.N. negotiator for over two decades.
NATO leaders have said that membership consultations with Macedonia could be finalized once the Prespa Agreement is fully implemented. Macedonia then could become NATO's 30th member, pending final ratification by member states, including by the U.S. Senate. During past NATO enlargements, the ratification process typically has taken from six months to one year.
U.S. officials and many Members of Congress believe that Macedonia's NATO and EU membership would help ward off the violence and interethnic tensions that have periodically flared in Macedonia. Some analysts speculate that the Prespa Agreement could set a powerful example of compromise for parties to other seemingly intractable disputes in the Balkans, such as Serbia and Kosovo.
Proponents of Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration also have stressed the importance of countering Russia's increased presence in Macedonia. This includes a heightened Russian media footprint, a proliferation of Russia-Macedonia friendship organizations, and cooperation between Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and the United Macedonia Party. Some analysts believe that Russia, which opposes Macedonia's potential NATO membership, may have supported the boycott campaign that dampened referendum turnout.