Macedonia’s referendum on changing its name to North Macedonia has failed to reach the required turnout.
Preliminary results show that just over a third of Macedonians voted in the referendum, with 50% needed.
However, with 90% of those who took part in favor of the change, Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has urged parliament to “confirm the will of the majority”.
The vote aimed to end a long-running dispute with neighboring Greece, which has its own region called Macedonia.
Greece had agreed to end its objections to Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership bids if the change was passed.
Over 85% of votes have been counted so far, but a campaign by some nationalists – including the country’s president – to boycott September 30 referendum seems to have had an impact, with just 36% of eligible voters taking part.
PM Zoran Zaev threatened to call early elections if parliament did not support the proposal, made non-binding by the poor turnout.
He said after polls closed on September 30: “If, as we all expect, we truly have a big visible, tangible majority for [voting in favor], out of those who voted, then the future is clear.
“The vote of the lawmakers in parliament must resolutely be a vote for a responsible acceleration of the processes towards NATO and the European Union.”
Macedonia declared independence during the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece objected to its new neighbor’s name.
The dispute harks back to ancient history, because both present-day Macedonia and northern Greece were part of a Roman province called Macedonia. And both claim the heritage of Alexander the Great two centuries earlier.
Athens’ objections forced the UN to refer to the new country as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.
Greece also vetoed Macedonia’s attempt to join NATO in 2008 – and blocked its EU membership ambitions.
Since 1991, many suggestions have been proposed, then rejected. However, last year’s change of government in Macedonia finally brought the start of serious negotiations.
If the name will be changed, Greece will end its veto on Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU.
The two countries agreed that the new name would be used both internationally and bilaterally, so that even the 140 or more countries that recognize the name Macedonia will also have to adopt North Macedonia.
They also agreed that the English name could be used as well as the Slavic term.
The two sides had earlier dropped a number of alternatives, including Gorna Makedonija (Upper Macedonia), Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia) and Ilinden Macedonia.
The name Macedonia already belongs to a northern region of Greece that includes the country’s second city Thessaloniki. By adopting the same identity in 1991, the new Slavic nation infuriated many Greeks, who suspected their northern neighbor of territorial ambitions.
The new Macedonians did not help matters when they named the main airport in the capital, Skopje, after Ancient Greek hero Alexander the Great, as well as a key motorway running from the Serbian to the Greek border.
During the 4th Century BC, the Macedonia of Alexander and his father Philip II before him ruled all of Greece and much beyond it.
When the Ottomans were driven out of the broad region known as Macedonia during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, it was split up, mainly between Greece and Serbia, but a small part went to Bulgaria.
In World War Two, Greek and Yugoslav Macedonia were occupied by Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany and Italy. Communists from both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria played a part in the Greek civil war that followed, so memories are still raw.
When Yugoslavia broke up, Greece would only accept the new country as “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)” at the UN, even though much of the world came to recognize it as Macedonia.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias recently received death threats when he said he expected the dispute to be resolved within months.
It is the second such protest in two weeks. On January 21, some 90,000 demonstrators rallied in Thessaloniki, the capital of the Macedonia region.
Organizers of February 4 protest estimated that 1.5 million people had attended but police said turnout was less than one tenth of that.
The dispute has simmered since Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and it has held up its attempts to join NATO and the EU.
Greece’s left-wing Syriza government says the issue is a diplomatic obstacle it wants resolved and has proposed agreeing to a composite name for the country which would include the word Macedonia but ensure a clear differentiation from the Greek region.
Macedonia argues that its people can be traced back to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, once ruled by Alexander the Great, and that the name “Macedonia” is therefore the logical option.
However, PM Zoran Zaev said last month that Macedonia would change the name of its airport from Skopje Alexander the Great airport, to show good will.
The Greek Orthodox Church backs the campaign to stop Macedonia using any variant of the name.
In organizations such as the UN, where talks have been under way, Macedonia is officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)
At home, the Macedonian government calls the country it administers simply “Republic of Macedonia”.
UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has suggested alternatives such as “Republic of New Macedonia”.
According to new reports, a proposal to name it “Republic of Macedonia-Skopje” was accepted by Greece but rejected by Macedonia.