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Macedonia under new US pressures over failed referendum

Pipeline projects in the Balkans

Much to Western lobbyists' surprise, the recent Macedonian referendum has failed miserably and thus country's Euro-Atlantic integration remains pending, as well as Western planned geostrategic implications. A referendum was held on 30 September 2018, with voters asked whether they support European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece in last June, related to the decades-long dispute between two countries over the former's name, an issue which has prevented the accession of Macedonia to the EU and NATO.

The Macedonian government had carried out a social media campaign about the issue of the referendum and the slew of Western dignitaries poured into Skopje to lobby for the measure. For them, the outcome superficially looked fine in the first half of the day as preliminary results showed that over 90 percent voted positive, but enthusiasm splashed at the end of the day because most Macedonians chose to stay home. More precisely, the proposal failed on a constitutional ground since the turnout of eligible voters was not over 50 percent, but around 37 percent.

As the results were invalidated, the opposition claimed victory, while Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said that he remains committed to renaming the country North Macedonia, resolving a name dispute with neighboring Greece and paving the way for EU and NATO membership. His government argued that the non-binding result meant the turnout requirement was pointless in the first place, and called for constitutional changes. Zaev has vowed to push forward with the changes in parliament that result can be approved by two-thirds of their votes.

Analysts agree that the incredibly low turnout, coupled with the government's defiant pledge to carry on with the name change despite its unpopularity, highlights the deep divide between the country's people and its political elite. The dismal result is a kick in the teeth to Western leaders and top officials who visited Macedonia ahead of the ill-fated vote. A few days before the referendum, a deluge of Western dignitaries graced the Macedonian capital, including US Defense Secretary James Mattis, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, etc. Macedonians obviously were not impressed enough.

A small link in big plans

Although apparently of a local character, the outcome of a referendum in a statelet of two million people carved from the ruins of Yugoslavia, which is struggling with rampant corruption and lingering ethnic tensions, can have global consequences. That is why the strong lobby activities were carried out and a large number of international actors monitored the voting. Seemingly irrelevant on the map, Macedonia has the geostrategic importance to further Russian-American pipeline wars.

To explain it as simple as possible, Russia exports its own gas to the rich Western Europe, while Americans are trying to reduce Russian influence by developing a network of alternative pipelines. Their focus is on Azerbaijan and Central Asia because Russia and Iran have embedded their plans of exporting Qatari gas through Iraq and Syria. Both Russian and American principle is the same and very simple: to carry out a continuous link between the producer and the consumer (Western Europe) by avoiding hostile countries, and having at least two routes due to potential one-sided political complications and someone's individual monopoly.

Russia is landlocked by the unfriendly Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Georgia, so they have already built the North Stream to Germany and the Blue Stream to Turkey, and plan a South-European route from the Balkans to Italy or Central Europe. On the other hand, every US plan necessarily involves the Balkans. The Caucasus is already secured by an established route from Azerbaijan to Georgia, the Turkish monopoly can be avoided by pipeline through the Black Sea, followed by the Balkan region where there are two solutions. The first is northeastern, across Romania and Hungary to Austria, similar to the Nabucco project which was rejected in 2013. Instead, the Azerbaijani consortium and the European Commission prefer the Southern Gas Corridor i.e. the connection to Italy via Albania, which can be achieved through Bulgaria, Greece, or alternatively, Macedonia.

Either family, or terrorists

Yesterday, the US State Department has urged the leading Macedonian opposition party VMRO-DPMNE to vote in favor of the name change deal despite the failed referendum, while the government in Skopje is threatening those that don't with terrorism prosecutions. Aaron Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, described the opposition stance as "disappointing" and in a letter urged them "to set aside partisan interests to advance shared strategic interests and secure a brighter future for citizens among the European family of nations." In the same time, Zaev has offered a grant amnesty to those charged with terrorism over the April 2017 incident, when VMRO sympathizers stormed the parliament in rage over Zaev appointing an ethnic Albanian nationalist as speaker, if they vote his way on amending the constitution. His opponents have meanwhile criticized Mitchell's letter as yet another example of the ongoing US meddling into Macedonian affairs, urging the West to respect the will of the people.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.