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Low Turnout Threatens The Result Of Macedonia's Vote On Whether To Change Its Name

A man casts his vote at a polling station on September 30, 2018, in Tetovo, Macedonia. Macedonians all across the country went to the polls to vote in a referendum to change the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia and end a long running dispute with Greece. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Voters in Macedonia took to the polls on Sunday to decide on a controversial referendum on whether to change the name of their country — a move that would pave the way for entry into NATO and the European Union. But low voter turnout could threaten the validity of the outcome.

Half an hour before polls were to close, voter turnout stood at 34 percent, according to the Associated Press. That figure was based on data from 85 percent of polling stations, according to State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski.

Under the Macedonian Constitution, if turnout is less than 50 percent, the results of the referendum would not be binding.

Macedonians are voting whether to change their country's name to North Macedonia. Greece's refusal to recognize Macedonia as a country has barred it from participating in both NATO and the EU. Greece insists Macedonia designate itself as "North" to differentiate the country from Greece's own province of Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great. The dispute goes back to the early 1990s, when Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.

The ballot question asks: "Are you in favor of membership in NATO and the European Union by accepting the deal between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?"

"I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations," Macedonia's prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said, according to the AP. Zaev has been at the forefront of negotiations with Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.

In June, after months of negotiations, Greece and Macedonia reached an agreement under certain conditions: Macedonian would add "North" to the country's name, while Greece would drop objections to Macedonia's NATO membership.

The European Commission released a statement in June saying: "We wholeheartedly congratulate Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev for their determination and leadership in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe."

But protesters in Macedonia have been pushing for a boycott. Notable critics of the referendum include Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who called the agreement a "flagrant violation of sovereignty," the AP reports.

One referendum protester in Macedonia told NPR's Joanna Kakissis, "It is not dignified, it is humiliating, that I must not call myself a Macedonian, the only name I have for myself, and for my ancestors, and for my children, only because of a political deal and a diplomatic deal."

If the referendum passes, it would end the two countries' almost three-decade-long dispute. According to the AP, if the referendum does not pass, Zaev has said he would resign and the deal with Greece would end.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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