“How would you feel if your neighbor told you your nation was an artificial construct?” Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov asked in a speech to the European Parliament in August. He had recently signed an agreement with his Greek counterpart that promised to end a decades-long political stalemate between the two over the use of the name “Macedonia,” putting eventual European Union and full NATO membership back on the table after years of Greek vetoes left Macedonia on the outside looking in. Macedonia would change its name, holding a referendum to bolster legitimacy for the eventual constitutional changes that would make it official.
When the first exit polls last Sunday indicated low turnout at the referendum, people started panicking. Many had believed that the prospect of EU membership, including trade and development benefits, was enough of a carrot to get Macedonians to vote in support of the name change. The country had shown tangible progress and reform on EU economic and political targets in the past couple of years—the naming issue was the last barrier before launching into EU accession negotiations. The turnout at day’s end was a disappointing 37 percent, far below the percentage that would enable Prime Minister Zoran Zaev easily to conjure a two-thirds majority from parliament, pointing to popular support.
This week looks likely to be the most difficult for the administration of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) since their landslide victory in the 2016 elections. They promised a final solution for the issue that had evaded all previous administrations, hanging like a heavy cloud over the growth prospects of the country. All the citizens needed to do was go out and vote. Sunday’s underwhelming response has undercut all that.
At the heart of this issue lies the question of nationhood, specifically, the difficulties faced by nations formed at the latter end of modern European history. Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, when modern Greece had existed in its current form for more than a century.* As such, Greece’s claim that Macedonia had usurped the name of its northern region, also named Macedonia, carried more weight internationally than it might otherwise have—historical disputes aside.