UPDATES WITH STATEMENT FROM OPPOSITON LEADER, VOTE COUNT DATA
By Talha Ozturk
BELGRADE, Serbia (AA) – Macedonians on Sunday voted in a referendum on a landmark deal with Greece to resolve a dispute and bring the country deeper into the international fold.
The question put to voters in the referendum says: "Are you in favor of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?"
Greece, a member of both for decades, has long opposed Macedonia's official name, as it has a province called Macedonia in the north of the country.
Due to Athens' objections, the dispute was one of the main obstacles to Macedonia's ambitions to join NATO and the EU.
Negotiations between Macedonia and Greece have recently picked up pace as a new government in Skopje sought progress in its bid to join the two organizations.
According to Macedonian State Election Commission, only 34.09 percent of the 1.8 million voters participated in the referendum until half an hour before the polls closed at 19.00 p.m. local time (1700GMT).
Macedonian law requires a turnout of at least 50 percent plus one vote for the referendum to be valid.
After the closure of the polls, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called on the opposition Macedonian National Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) to respect the decision of the majority of citizens.
"Otherwise we will have to use another democratic means, that is, extraordinary parliamentary elections right away," said Zaev.
– Official count
Later, Hristijan Mickoski, the president of VMRO-DPMNE, appreciated voters who voted against the name agreement and those who did not go to the polls.
"Here lives Macedonians. Our identity is Macedonian. Our language is Macedonian. Our ancestors are Macedonian," said Mickoski.
Commenting on Zaev's remarks regarding snap elections, Mickoski said Zaev should take retirement rather than holding early elections.
With ballots from 43 percent of polling stations counted, 90.72 percent of votes were in favor of the name changing to North Macedonia, compared to 6.26 percent opposing the move, according to the electoral commission's official count.
Macedonian citizens living abroad voted on Saturday at diplomatic offices across the world.
According to the election commission, 985 out of 2,694 expat voters participated in the polls.
Although the result of the referendum will not be binding, the government said it will abide by the will of the citizens in this vote.
– 2 countries' parliaments must okay
This will be the third-ever referendum for Macedonia, one of the smallest countries in Europe, with a population of a little over 2 million. Just over 1.8 million voters have the right to vote on the measure, and more than half must vote for the referendum to be valid.
Following the referendum, at least two-thirds or 81 of Macedonia’s 120 parliamentary deputies must support it to ratify the constitutional changes.
After the completion of these processes in Macedonia, the agreement must also be approved by Greece’s parliament.
The name issue has kept Macedonia from joining the EU and NATO since its independence in 1991.
Macedonia's international recognition was finalized in April 1993, when the country was unanimously adopted as a member of the UN General Assembly, but was admitted as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) due to pressure by Greece.
Despite the dispute between Athens and Skopje, many countries, including Turkey, recognize the country as Macedonia.