Macedonia’s looming war of interpretations

After years of turmoil, Macedonia seems to be turning the page in its political development. The mood in Skopje is quite different from that of recent years: energised and optimistic rather than gloomy. Big reform challenges lie ahead, but the government is rightly focusing all its efforts on the campaign for the Prespa Agreement. If it succeeds, progress on Nato and the EU membership will provide the context for reform. If it fails, the moment will pass and Macedonia will be unlikely to get another such opportunity for several years – perhaps even a decade or more.

Both the government and observers expect the referendum on September 30  – on changing Macedonia’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia” and pursuing membership of the European Union and Nato – to deliver a positive result, with as much as 80 percent of the vote. The risk is that this could lead to a war of interpretations.

According to data from the last census, Macedonia has an electorate of around 1.8 million – meaning that the 50 percent threshold is just over 900 000. Everyone knows that the population has fallen since the census – perhaps to 1.5 million. The government needs a turnout that is judged respectable and representative of a big majority. Turnout seems likely to be around the 750 000 mark; but, even below this, a significant majority in favour of the government’s proposed package would justify a parliamentary vote on the changes.

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Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.