Macedonians Vote on New Country Name

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) -- Macedonians were deciding on their country's future Sunday, voting whether to accept a landmark deal ending a decades-long dispute with neighboring Greece by changing their country's name to North Macedonia.

The June deal would pave the way for NATO and possibly European Union membership, ending a dispute dating from the early 1990s when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Greece argued that the name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name, and blocked the country's efforts to join NATO.

But the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border, with detractors accusing their respective governments of conceding too much to the other side.

In Macedonia, those opposing the deal have called for a boycott of Sunday's referendum. Critics included the country's president, Gjorge Ivanov, who has described the deal as a "flagrant violation of sovereignty."

Voters on Sunday were confronted with the question: "Are you in favor of membership in NATO and European Union by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?"

The referendum is non-binding, meaning the government could take the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of turnout. Under the country's constitution, a binding referendum would need a minimum turnout of 50 percent.

State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski said turnout at 3 p.m., four hours before the polls close, stood at just over 22 percent.

Supporters of the deal, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country's future prosperity, the key to its ability to join NATO and, eventually, the EU. It would be a major step for a country that less than two decades ago almost descended into civil war, when some in its ethnic Albanian minority took up arms against the government, seeking greater rights.

Zaev cast his ballot in the southeastern town of Strumica and urged his fellow citizens to ensure a strong turnout.

"I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations," Zaev said. "I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multiethnic nature of this country and the political unity of this country."

Opposition VMRO-DPMNE party spokesman Ivo Kotevski criticized the name deal as something that would force Macedonians to give up their national identity.

"Everything is wrong with that deal. It's a deal that will have long-term consequences," he said. "We will lose our identity because of the crime of Zaev. It's wrong to change the constitution, it's wrong to change the name."

Djose Tanevski was among the early voters in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.

"I came here because of the future of our children, who should have a decent life, a life in a lovely country, which will become a member of the European Union and NATO," he said.

But others had no intention of voting.

"I'm disappointed with all that is happening with Macedonia," said 34-year-old Bojan Krstevski. "I cannot give up my Macedonian identity. I don't want to be North Macedonian."

The referendum has stirred strong interest in the West, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis among top foreign officials in Skopje recently to back the "Yes" side.

Russia, however, is not keen on NATO expanding in a part of Europe once under its sphere of influence. Mattis said there was "no doubt" that Moscow had funded groups inside Macedonia to campaign against the name change.

If the "Yes" vote wins, the next step is for the government to amend parts of the country's constitution to ensure it doesn't contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece. Only after those changes are approved by the Macedonian parliament does the deal face ratification in Greece.

Even if Macedonians vote in favor of the deal, the agreement still faces several hurdles.

The required constitutional amendments need approval by two-thirds majority of parliament's 120 members. So far Zaev has pledges of support from 73 lawmakers --- seven short. A low referendum turnout could complicate his task of persuading more lawmakers that the name change enjoys popular support.

Once the constitutional amendments are approved in Macedonia, Greece must ratify the deal.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces political problems of his own. His governing coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks head Panos Kammenos, has vowed to vote against the deal in parliament, leaving Tsipras reliant on opposition parties and independent lawmakers to push it through.