Lawmakers in the Republic of Macedonia scheduled a referendum for Sept. 30 to complete an agreement to rename the country, a necessary step for it to join NATO and start accession talks with the European Union.
The Balkan country of 2 million people signed an accord with neighboring Greece last month to solve a decades-long dispute over the name “Macedonia.” Greece, which has a region with the same name, agreed to withdraw its objections to its neighbor’s accession efforts if it renamed itself as “The Republic of North Macedonia.”
Lawmakers voted 68 to zero on Monday to back the government’s proposal for the referendum, with the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party boycotting the vote. The referendum will ask voters “Do you favor EU and NATO accession by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” said Speaker Talat Xhaferi at a session streamed live from the parliament in Skopje.
“Today we’re not just writing history, we’re creating conditions for our state, for our only home, to become a European state, a part of the European family,” Tomislav Tuntev, the ruling Social Democrats’ legislative whip, told lawmakers. “The EU and NATO are our only alternative. We don’t have any other option.”
Both countries continue to face staunch opposition to the agreement from home and abroad as Russia opposes the further expansion of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s struggling to maintain influence in a region where the countries of the former Yugoslavia look to western political structures as a promise to boost living standards that are well below the European Union average.
In Macedonia, President Gjorge Ivanov, an ally of the VMRO-DPMNE party, has vowed to block the referendum and prevent the deal from taking place, saying it violates the country’s constitution and hurt his country’s nationalist interests. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has already overruled one of the president’s vetoes.
Nationalist protesters have also taken to the streets to denounce Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for agreeing to the name change. Ties between Moscow and Athens took a turn for the worse this month when Greece expelled two Russian diplomats for spying and bribing civil servants.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization approved Macedonia’s membership bid under the condition that the accord is finalized, and the EU said it may start accession talks next year upon progress in domestic reforms.