The failed Macedonian name referendum, proposing changing the name of the country from Macedonia to North Macedonia, caught the attention of both Western and Russian observers last month. Although 91 percent of voters supported the name change, Macedonian law requires at least 50 percent of voters to cast a ballot for the referendum to be legally valid — but just 34 percent of eligible voters cast theirs. The vote was seen as another battle between the eastern expansion of Western institutions and Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, including interference in elections across the world.
The name change debate stems from a longstanding dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece views the name ‘Macedonia’ as a way for their neighbor to the north, FYROM, to claim ownership over Greece’s northern territories, also called Macedonia, and has blocked FYROM’s attempts to join the EU and NATO as a result. But leaders of the two nations came to a deal in June 2018, stating if Macedonia changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece would drop its opposition to Macedonian membership to the aforementioned organizations. In July 2018, NATO leaders formally invited Macedonia to join the alliance, indicating Macedonian membership in both institutions was nearly guaranteed if the referendum passed.
The failed referendum, which was advisory rather than binding, has thrown FYROM into a political crisis. FYROM’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, said he would continue with the name change, trying to gain the two-thirds majority in Parliament necessary for a constitutional amendment to change the name. If the two-thirds majority is not realized, Zaev has said he will call snap elections in early November.
Why does this matter?
Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU would further the eastward expansion of both institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thirteen Eastern European nations have joined both institutions since 1991. Russia views the expansion of these institutions as a threat to their national security and an act of aggression by the West, and has therefore initiated efforts to prevent Eastern European states from joining either institution. When Ukraine began pursuing closer ties with the EU in 2012, Russia placed increasing pressure on Ukraine to reconsider, culminating in the suppression of pro-EU protests and invasion of Crimea in February 2014.
Russia has also attempted to throw the established Western democracies and the EU into chaos by influencing domestic politics. Thus far, this effort has been made through utilizing sophisticated social media campaigns, which deepen divisions between different social groups, and funding fringe political parties in EU member states. Their online campaigns aimed at influencing presidential elections in the U.S. in 2016 and France in 2017 were well documented at the time. Eurosceptic political parties, such as the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the Northern League in Italy, have all had contact with or received funding from Russia. By throwing the Western powers into disarray, Russia hopes to direct these democracies’ focuses inward on domestic issues, allowing Russia to regain their sphere of influence over the Eastern European states, which are already ethnically, culturally, and historically tied to Russia.
When FYROM and Greece announced the deal in June, Russia began pressuring Macedonia to keep the name unchanged, ensuring NATO and the EU would not gain another foothold in Eastern Europe. Russia encouraged Macedonians to boycott the vote through online disinformation campaigns and paid a group of soccer hooligans to incite violence at anti-name change protests in July. The Russian ambassador also threatened the Balkan nation, warning that Macedonia would be “a legitimate target” were they to vote for the change. At the same time, Western politicians encouraged Macedonia to change their name, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visiting FYROM before the referendum.
Ultimately, the failure of the referendum is yet another example of the silent war for influence in Eastern Europe between the West and Russia. Russia’s campaign to destabilize the Western world has become increasingly and alarmingly effective. U.S. officials remain unsure how to effectively combat Russian meddling domestically, much less how to combat Russia’s campaigns in less-developed democracies such as FYROM. Whether or not the silent war of influence bubbles over into a more serious conflict depends entirely on how leaders continue to react to cases such as FYROM’s.