FYROM referendum: The risks of a ‘no’ vote

FYROM referendum: The risks of a ‘no’ vote

The FYROM referendum will take place on 30 September 2018. If the electorate votes ‘no’, the question becomes – will the government will comply?

The context

In 2004, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) submitted an application to join the EU, and in 2006 NATO offered the prospect of inviting FYROM to become a member. However, Greece blocked both of these bids due to a long-running dispute.

The dispute involved the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by FYROM, which is the same as a neighboring region in northern Greece. Concerns have been raised from the Greek side that FYROM seeks territorial claims and to take ownership of its cultural heritage.

In 2018, the two countries reached an agreement resolving the dispute. This stated that the two countries shared no historic or ethnic connections. Furthermore, FYROM committed to change the country’s name, and Greece in exchange would accept FYROM’s membership in the two organizations.

The FYROM government has announced the holding of a referendum, in which the electorate would vote in favor or against the country’s membership in NATO and the EU, by accepting the agreement signed between FYROM and Greece.

The referendum’s importance

FYROM is a small country, with an internal political crisis affecting its economic performance, and high levels of corruption.

FYROM is also vulnerable to external threats such as Russia, which seeks to maximize its influence in the country, due to its strategic value.

By joining NATO and the EU, FYROM would enter alliances with the most powerful countries in the world, ensuring its own security and political stability. It would also improve prospects for economic growth, as trade procedures would be facilitated, allowing it to enter new markets and maximize foreign investments.

A ‘no’ result

The signed agreement met with heavy disapproval by the FYROM population and this is expected to be reflected on the results of the referendum. There are three indicators that suggest that the electorate will vote ‘no’.

Firstly, after the agreement was signed, violent protests erupted, where protestants opposed the country’s name change and expressed their dissatisfaction for the government.

Secondly, according to a poll conducted by META, the majority of the citizens stated that they would vote ‘no’ on the upcoming referendum.

Thirdly, the VMRO-DRMNE coalition, which is one of the major parties in the country and currently in opposition to FYROM government, has stated that it will encourage supporters to vote against the agreement in the referendum.

Non-compliant government

In the event that the outcome of the referendum is ‘no’, due to the significance of the agreement with Greece, there is a realistic probability that the FYROM government will not comply with the results. The government has the legal right to do so, as the referendum will only be consultative. This means that the Assembly of FYROM can vote in favour of the agreement without requiring the consent of the electorate. However, if the government decides to move towards that direction, it is highly likely that it would face multiple risks.

The electorate may lose confidence in the government and demand elections. This is expected to increase FYROM’s political instability and decrease the probability of the current government and Prime Minister being re-elected.

Moreover, as violent protests took place throughout the country when the agreement was signed, it is safe to assume that if the government refuses to comply with a potential ‘no’ in the referendum, riots may erupt. This would have a negative impact on the country’s stability.

Instability is also expected within the Assembly, between the government and the opposition. To modify the country’s name according to the agreement, the constitution must be amended. This can only be achieved if two thirds of the total Members of the Parliament (MP) vote in favor of the amendment. Currently, the Assembly is encompassed by 120 MPs, from which 69 belong to the government and 51 to the opposition. The government is unable to complete the amendment without the support of the opposition, which is unlikely to provide it, as it is against the agreement.

It is also possible that Russia would attempt to obstruct this process. FYROM has strategic importance for Russia, as it aims to expand its influence in the European South-East. FYROM joining NATO and the EU is against Russia`s interests.

Compliant government

Given the above potential consequences, if the result of the referendum is ‘no’, the more likely scenario is that the government will comply. However, this does not necessarily guarantee a more stable outcome. In fact, the Prime Minister has declared that a lack of attendance or a ‘no’ outcome in the referendum would lead to his resignation. The country will be forced to undergo early elections which will increase instability.

NATO and the EU will attempt to persuade the government to resume the accession negotiations. Both organizations are concerned with Russia’s desire to maximize its influence in the European South-East. However, the government is likely to prefer pausing the accession processes over suffering a political cost.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Iris Chatzidaki-Pefani

Iris Chatzidaki-Pefani is a research analyst who has worked at a security company in London and the Institute of International Relations. Her areas of expertise are security and politics. She holds a master's degree in Countering organised crime and terrorism from University College London (UCL) and a bachelor's degree in International, European and Area studies from Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.