The Name’s Macedonia. North Macedonia.

Can the Country Overcome Its Identity Crisis?

A man casts his ballot for the referendum in Macedonia on changing the country's name in Skopje, Macedonia September 2018.  Marko Djurica/REUTERS

What’s in a name? Enough to hold a referendum on it. Thus, some 1.8 million voters in the Republic of Macedonia were asked on Sunday, September 30, to cast a vote on their country’s name. The question on the ballot: “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” The accord in question is known as the Prespa Agreement, provisionally signed by the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers earlier this year. In it, Macedonia agrees to change its name to “the Republic of North Macedonia.” The change holds the potential to end a decades-long deadlock between the two countries over Macedonia’s name, language, and national identity—and also over competing interpretations of history. For Macedonia in particular, the stakes are high: resolving the dispute would allow it to join NATO and, further down the line, smooth the way for its accession to the European Union.

But with more than 97 percent of the votes counted, it looks as if the referendum did little to settle the matter. Roughly 94 percent of the votes were cast in favor of the Prespa Agreement (and thus in support of the name-change), but turnout stood at a dismal 37 percent. As such, the referendum is only consultative, not binding, and the wrangling over the country’s future continues.

Since Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia in late 1991, a majority of UN members have recognized it under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, a name largely unchanged since 1944. However, Greece objected to the name, arguing that it implied a territorial claim on its own northern province of Macedonia. The two countries reached an agreement to allow Macedonia to join international organizations using its official UN designation, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Yet when Macedonia sought to join NATO under that name in 2008, Greece blocked its accession anyway. The International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that Greece’s position breached international

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