The Macedonian Candidate: A Prime Minister’s Attempt to Rebrand His Nation

The Macedonian Candidate: A Prime Minister’s Attempt to Rebrand His Nation

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The small southeastern European nation of Macedonia is currently in the throes of a constitutional debate over something fairly simple: its name. But this is not merely a question of optics. The question, which has been raging for decades (with sometimes tragic consequences), is whether the name Macedonia acts as a dog-whistle claim to the homonymous Greek region, which some Macedonian nationals wish to unite with their republic.

Refusal by the Republic of Macedonia to alter its name to something Greece considers acceptable has prevented it for years from joining both the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union, accession to which is stated as one of the primary goals of the current coalition government. The referendum held on 30th September 2018 saw 91% support the renaming of the republic as Northern Macedonia. But due to those against the change choosing to boycott the plebiscite, turnout was measured at only 37%, a figure too low for the result to be deemed legitimate by the electoral commission.

This contention has, for the most part, been viewed externally as a proxy dispute between the West, seeking to strengthen their regionalist institutions, and Russia, strongly opposed to western unity and expansion. But whilst to a large degree this is true, such a macro-political perspective fails to account for the agency of the citizens of Macedonia itself and, in particular, its Prime Minister.

Zoran Zaev has only been the Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia for less than eighteen months, but already the effects of his premiership can be seen. Zaev’s commitment to EU integration dates back to his days in opposition, having worked with the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy in an attempt to sway the incumbent government at the time away from their resistance to the name-change. His efforts culminated in bringing down the government and the election of his own party, a path which led directly to the referendum.

Since attaining office, Zaev has laid the groundwork for Macedonian accession to the EU, most of which involved fostering good will with Greece, who had been blocking their efforts to join. In January, Zaev met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the World Economic Forum; in February he allowed for key structures named after Alexander the Great to be renamed, nomenclature controversial in Greece due to the perceived appropriation of their heritage. In his inaugural speech he employed rhetoric asserting the national unity of the republic in a move seen as an attempt to allay the ethnic divisions between Macedonians and Albanians, as well as emphasising a more European identity to which the nation should aspire. When an agreement was finally reached in June, detailing the renaming of Macedonia to North Macedonia as a direct route to EU and NATO membership, as well enshrining the national, linguistic and legal rights of its citizens, it is difficult to see how such an accord could have been reached without the diplomacy exercised by Zaev over the previous several years.

In an ironic twist of fate, the referendum, now concluded, has, in an attempt to reconcile a longstanding constitutional crisis, generated a new one: the question of the powers of parliament and the prime minister in implementing changes to the foundation of Macedonian society. Despite the head of the electoral commission, Oliver Derkoski, declaring the result invalid in accordance with election rules, Zaev has vowed to move ahead with a parliamentary vote. In the face of resistance from the opposition party, he has offered them the choice between either acceptance of the referendum or the holding of parliamentary elections.

Macedonia is now faced with a variety of ethical and legal questions.

Is the referendum truly illegitimate in the light of the result, as well as potential Russian meddling? Foreign diplomats as well as prime minister Zaev have claimed that Russia sought to influence the outcome by illicit means, but this has yet to be verified, and a full investigation could take months. As for the result, some feel that if objectors wanted their voices heard then they should have voted, rather than rigging the vote to fail by rendering it illegitimate through their abstention, despite the probability that the boycotters would have lost had they turned out to vote.

In spite of such political analysis, does the indisputably low turnout mean that Zaev should resign due to his failure to unite the country? Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom resigned under similar circumstances two years ago, but the nature of this vote means that any comparison will have fundamental flaws.

Is the government abusing its executive powers by ignoring the ruling of the electoral commission? This one is harder to controvert: unless electoral law is amended, then legally the government is in violation of its rules and is acting, in the technical sense, tyrannically.

Is the threat of elections a form of blackmail, due to the likelihood that the incumbent party will reinforce their majority and will be able to defer the next election for four more years, thereby extending their tenure? The answer to this question will depend on who you ask, but there is certainly more than a scent of unethical power play in this ultimatum.

Already commentators both domestically and internationally are declaring their stance on the matter. Most of these opinions are largely influenced by whether the promulgator sees western political development as a force for good, or an encroaching hegemony to be feared. Ultimately, your own verdict on the matter is likely to depend on the value you ascribe to a number of interdependent issues: including but not limited to European growth and military alliance, parliamentary sovereignty, the efficacy of referenda, democratic engagement and ethnic tensions in the Balkan Peninsula.

This story is likely to develop by the day. The fate of the Prime Minister, of the government, of parliament, of Macedonia and of the region itself will be shaped by action taken over the next several weeks. But, regardless of the outcome, the constitutional structure of the Republic of Macedonia will never be the same again.

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