Polls open in landmark referendum on Macedonia's name

A woman holds a “Yes” poster during a rally in Tetovo Macedonia on Sept. 27 before this weekend’s referendum on changing Macedonia’s name

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his socialist party, together with the two parties representing the large Albanian majority, are expected to vote "Yes" to the question "Are you in favour of European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?".

In June, Athens and Skopje hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the new name.

Opponents to the name change had called for a boycott of the vote and celebrated in the street outside Parliament when turnout figures were announced, chanting slogans and waving flags.

Meanwhile, the European Union urged all sides to respect the result of Sunday's referendum in Macedonia.

With most of the vote counted, only 37 per cent of eligible Macedonians had answered the question of whether to accept an agreement to change the country's name to North Macedonia in exchange for Greece's lifting of its veto on Nato and European Union membership.

Greece's parliament must also approve the June name deal and, like Zaev, leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also faces opposition from his nationalist foes.

"I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines, in the interest of the country", he said.

Only 35 percent of the 1.8 million Macedonian registered voters came out to vote in a key name referendum on Sunday, partial results showed. He and his coalition partners will need at least a dozen opposition MPs to back the move.

"MPs now have an obligation to make Macedonia a better place for all of us", Zaev told reporters late on Sunday.

"The parliament will now be called upon to proceed with the next steps for the implementation of the name agreement by deciding on the adoption of the constitutional changes", the statement, which made no reference at all to turnout, said. Earlier, Greece used to see the name change as a threat to its own northern regions, also called Macedonia. Ancient Greece's Macedonia stretched across both present-day countries and was the birthplace of Greek heroes, including Alexander the Great.

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Zaev had billed the referendum as a painful but "historic" opportunity to break a 27-year-old stalemate. "The fact is that the agreement with Greece did not receive a green light", he said.

Greek commentators noted that the 659,000 voters who backed the name agreement were more than the 534,000 who elected Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov - who opposes the deal - in 2014.

Few Macedonians are enthused about the new name, saying they have been unfairly bullied by Greece.

The European Union has invested a considerable amount of political capital in favour of the deal and may be tempted to do what it has done in the past, which is to ignore it or ask people to vote again.

But a desire to anchor their future to the West―and the economic prosperity that it could bring―is a powerful motivation to accept the deal in one of Europe's poorest nations.

Commission head Oliver Derkoski said the Macedonian Constitution stipulates a minimum 50 per cent turnout for a referendum to be considered binding.

"We urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions", said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

Russian Federation is against North Atlantic Treaty Organisation picking up another member in a part of Europe that was within its sphere of influence for decades.

"Macedonia has spoken today - Macedonia said - the deal is off". He pledged to hold a vote in parliament on the name change, and call an early election if lawmakers failed to enact it.

According to Florian Bieber from the University of Graz, it is important whether the opposition will be moderate, as the West suggested in its meetings with Mickoski.

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