Name change haunts Macedonian election

Published 20.04.2019 00:18

Macedonians vote in a presidential election on Sunday shaping up as an unofficial referendum on the hotly disputed change of the country's name to North Macedonia under a deal with Greece.

The country held an actual referendum on the issue last year but it was invalidated due to insufficient turnout. Skopje's parliament later ratified the accord, which opened the door to Macedonian membership of the European Union and NATO. But the name change, which Greece demanded to end what it called an implied territorial claim on its northern province also called Macedonia, continues to polarize Macedonians and has eclipsed all other issues in the presidential election campaign. A 24-metre-(79-foot)-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje's main square casts the dispute in sharp relief. Plans to attach a new plaque to the statue saying it belongs to Hellenic culture was agreed as part of the deal but has angered many conservative Macedonians who say Alexander's ancient heritage was Macedonian, not Greek.

Barring a majority winner on Sunday, a second round run-off will be held on May 5 to decide the contest. The refusal of outgoing nationalist President Gjeorge Ivanov to sign some bills passed by parliament has delayed the implementation of some key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language, 18 years after an ethnic Albanian uprising that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war. But the presidency had no authority to block constitutional amendments that were passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament to enable the name change to North Macedonia.

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