Macedonia’s internationalised constitutional amendment process

By Simonida Kacarska and Naum Lokoski , 28 February 2019
Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev and Greek PM Alexis Tsipiras before Sign the Prespa Agreement  (photo credit: Nikos Arvanitidis/EPA/New York Times)
Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev and Greek PM Alexis Tsipiras before Sign the Prespa Agreement (photo credit: Nikos Arvanitidis/EPA/New York Times)

Following a contentious constitutional amendment process and an unsuccessful referendum in Macedonia coupled with tumultuous politics in approving the Prespa Agreement in Greece, the Agreement has entered into force with Macedonia being renamed the Republic of North Macedonia and Greece supporting North Macedonia’s NATO membership. Nevertheless, much work lies ahead to ensure the continued good faith implementation of the Agreement – write Dr. Kacarska and Lokoski.


In early February 2019, the Republic of Macedonia, until then provisionally recognised in the UN as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, adopted constitutional changes through which it renamed itself North Macedonia in line with the Prespa Agreement between the governments of Macedonia and Greece in June 2018. The Prime Minister of Macedonia in a speech soon after the signing explained that the Agreement opens Macedonia’s road to accession to the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The agreement puts an end to a nearly three decades long dispute between the two neighbouring countries The dispute was marred with difficulties in international recognition, a trade embargo as well as a Greece veto on membership in international organisations. In addition to building new dynamics between the two countries, the tangible outcome of the constitutional changes and the agreement was the immediate signing of North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol. In practice, the name dispute was the primary reason for not allowing Macedonia to accede to the alliance since 2008 when it was first considered to have fulfilled the membership requirements.

Background to the dispute and the Prespa Agreement

The declaration of an independent Macedonian state in 1991 was not welcomed in Greece, as it claimed that the term ‘Macedonia’ is an essential element of its own culture, as well as implies territorial ambitions on its northern province of Macedonia. As a result, in the early 1990s Greece effectively blocked the efforts of Macedonia to gain international recognition, especially in the EU and imposed a costly trade embargo on its neighbour. 

The name dispute was intrinsically linked with the international recognition of the Republic of Macedonia, and later became a stark obstacle to its membership in the EU and NATO. In the early 1990s, the establishment of Macedonia’s relations with the European Community was strained due to objections of Greece to its constitutional name. At the Lisbon summit in June 1992, due to Greek pressure, the EU decided to withhold recognition of the newly independent state, contrary to the advisory opinion of the Badinter Commission, specifically established for this purpose. The European Council conclusions expressed ‘readiness to recognise that republic within its existing borders according to their Declaration on 16 December 1991 under a name which does not include the term Macedonia’. A consensual (albeit temporary) solution was found with the country joining the UN in 1993 under a provisional name ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. Formal diplomatic relations between Macedonia and the EU were not established until December 1995, after the signing of the Interim Accord between the two countries in September of the same year. In the Accord, Greece undertook not to veto Macedonia’s entry into regional and international organisations under the provisional reference, thus creating conditions for establishing full diplomatic relations with the EU, which evolved in to the country’s acquisition of a status of a candidate for membership in the Union in 2005.

Greece formally blocked Macedonia's membership to NATO in 2008. 

Yet, in April 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, the members of the alliance failed to reach consensus on Macedonia’s membership, although the country was considered to fulfil membership requirements. This was the first time Greece exercised a veto over Macedonia’s membership in an international organisation under the provisional reference, which effectively led to the Judgment of the International Court of Justice in favour of Macedonia, proclaiming that Greece has breached the 1995 Interim Accord. The judgment had no practical implications on solving the name dispute. A year later, the dispute also transferred to the EU arena. In 2009, the European Commission recommended the start of accession negotiations which Macedonia was awaiting since 2005 when it obtained a candidate status for EU membership. Yet, the 2009 European Commission report also noted that ‘maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential’. The recommendation for the negotiations was repeated until 2015 when it was suspended due to internal democratic backsliding of the country, only to be re-confirmed in April 2018 when a solution of the name dispute was in sight, which was signed only two months later. The resolution of the name dispute was at the core of the priorities of the new government in Macedonia, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, that took power in mid-2017 to unblock the country’s accession path. For this purpose, the signing of the Prespa Agreement was timed several days ahead of the meeting of the European Council at which Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations were again placed on the agenda of EU leaders.

The aftermath of the signing of the Prespa Agreement

The path that followed the signing of the agreement since June 2018 in both countries was anything but smooth. On the Macedonian side, after the signing, the National Assembly ratified the Prespa Agreement in June 2018 with a simple majority that was needed for this purpose. President Gjorge Ivanov, in an attempt to stop the name-change and the implementation of the agreement, did not sign the ratification, as he considered the agreement a ‘criminal act’ that violated the Constitution. Although constitutionally obliged, the President refused to sign the ratification even after Parliament voted for the second time on the Agreement.

The agreement stipulates that, if it chooses, Macedonia can hold a referendum on the name issue. Prime Minister Zaev announced that this would be the case, albeit the referendum was deemed to be consultative. The Parliament set 30 September 2018 as a date for the consultative referendum on the Prespa Agreement and constitutional reforms to change the name of the country. The question to which the citizens were asked was ‘Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?’. While the clarity of the question was highly contested, the intention of the government was to make sure that the name change is understood by the public as a precondition towards EU and NATO membership, both of which enjoy overwhelming public support. In these circumstances, the framing of the opposition to the agreement also implied that one would be against the country’s EU and NATO membership. As a result, most of the opponents to the agreement opted for a boycott of the referendum. The biggest opposition party in Parliament decided not to instruct its supporters as to a decision, although prominent party leaders campaigned in support of a boycott and its leadership has strongly criticised the agreement. On the day of the referendum, 37 per cent of the registered voters turned out to the polls, out of which more than 94 per cent supported the Prespa Agreement. The referendum did not reach the legal turnout threshold of 50 per cent of the registered voters and was thus declared unsuccessful.  

The constitutional referendum was unsuccessful as it did not reach the legal turnout threshold of 50 per cent of the registered voters.  

Following the referendum, on 8 October 2018, the Macedonian government adopted the proposal for changing the Constitution, as provided by the Prespa Agreement and sent the proposal to the Parliament. In order to start discussion on constitutional changes, 80 of the 120 members of parliament must support the proposal. Yet, the ruling coalition by then had secured 71 votes. Political wrangling to obtain the additional votes necessary for passing the constitutional changes followed. In order to get part of the opposition on board Prime Minister Zaev in his speech in front of the Parliament before the voting called for reconciliation which was interpreted as a form of amnesty for opposition MPs accused in a pending court case. The court case is linked to the events of 27 April 2017, when an informal protest movement ‘For a Joint Macedonia’ (supported by the main opposition party) violently entered the Assembly and physically attacked four members of parliament and injured more than 100 people.  Five opposition MPs who were accused in a pending court case  were released from detention on the day of the vote and several of them voted in favor of the start of the discussion on constitutional changes. The reconciliation has largely been perceived as saving the perpetrators from jail time. This offer and the negotiations with the other members of Parliament resulted with 80 votes ‘for’ the amendment and Parliament accepted constitutional amendments to change the country’s name. The final vote endorsing the proposed amendments, drafted together by the government and other members of parliament that supported the name-change, happened on 11 January 2019, when the Parliament with 81 votes (one more than the required two-third majority) adopted the changes to the Constitution.

What is in the constitutional changes?

In mid-January 2019, Parliament adopted four amendments to the Constitution which included foremost an amendment which changes the name of the country from ‘Republic of Macedonia’ to ‘Republic of North Macedonia’. The second amendment further specified that ‘the Republic will respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of neighboring states’, in line with the requirements of neighboring Greece. Thirdly, Parliament also voted for an amendment that specifies that the country will protect, guarantee and cherish the characteristics, historical and cultural heritage of the Macedonian people and the rights and interests of its citizens, including different ethnic groups, that live abroad. The same amendment also stipulates that the country won’t intervene in the sovereign rights of other states and in their internal affairs. The latter two amendments are linked specifically to the objections of Greece regarding the lack of recognition and difficult historical circumstances of the treatment of the Macedonian minority in Greece.

The amendment also includes the recognition of the collective rights of the Albanian ethnic community in Macedonia. 

The fourth amendment changed the Preamble of the Constitution, which now specifies the historic documents to which the constitution refers and also recognizes the Ohrid Framework Agreement (the agreement from 2001 granting large collective rights to the Albanian ethnic community) as a constitutive document of the country, together with Krusevo Republic and 8 September (Independence Day).

These amendments were to become effective only after the ratification of the Prespa Agreement by Greece and the ratification of the Protocol for accession of North Macedonia to NATO by the Greek Parliament. In effect, if the Greek Parliament would not support these two documents, the constitutional changes in Macedonia would be void, therefore internationalizing the constitutional amendment process.

The uneasy process in Greece

Following the adoption of the constitutional changes in Macedonia, the process moved on to Greece, where the Prespa Agreement stirred a polarizing debate and a government reshuffle amidst violent public protests.  Before the actual vote on the agreement, the Greek government led by prime minister Alexis Tsipras survived a confidence vote, as Panos Kammenos’s ANEL party, left the governing coalition, precisely because of the Prespa Agreement. Nevertheless, several members of parliament from ANEL expressed confidence in Tsipras’s government and voted for the ratification of the deal with Macedonia. Greece experienced violent protests against the agreement. Following this turmoil, on 25 January 2019, the Greek parliament ratified the Prespa Agreement. On 8 February 2019, Greece ratified the Protocol for North Macedonia’s NATO membership as the last condition for the constitutional changes in Macedonia to become effective and the country to change its name to North Macedonia.

Political dynamics at the domestic level may create some hurdles. 

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the main opposition party in Greece who could take over the leadership of the Greek government after next elections in autumn 2019, reluctantly conceded that although his political party, New Democracy, can’t reverse the Prespa Agreement, he would use his leverage during the EU accession negotiations. The opposition are seeking to capitalize on nationalist sentiments and have accused the ruling party of betrayal. Hurdles in this respect should in any case be expected. According to the Prespa Agreement, North Macedonia and Greece have an obligation to negotiate for trademarks, with direct implications on negotiations on the chapter dealing with intellectual property rights. In addition, chapters for education and culture in the EU accession negotiations could be a playground for new disagreements, because of specific issues about history and textbooks that need to be addressed between the two countries.

Deserved praise and upcoming risks

The resolution of the Greek-Macedonian dispute has been hailed as an example of incredible political will and readiness to tackle seemingly intractable disputes in a region that has been known to produce conflicts instead of solutions. The US administration recently called the Agreement the biggest achievement in the Balkans since the Dayton agreement. The prime ministers of the two countries have also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were recently awarded the Ewald von Kleist Award at the Munich Security Conference for exceptional contribution to peace building. The role of the two ministers of foreign affairs was also essential. Still, the practical implementation of the Agreement will depend on the behavior and actions of governments in North Macedonia and Greece. As politicians in the past have often found the name dispute to be a fertile ground for polarization and electoral gains, the success of the rapprochement depends on building and sustaining broad internal political buy-in to the Agreement on both sides of the border.

On the Macedonian side, the renamed country’s Euro-Atlantic integration remains a necessary condition for the acceptance of the Prespa Agreement, emphasizing the role of the international organizations, most notably EU and NATO.  While for North Macedonia NATO membership will be a visible early benefit of the Agreement, the path to EU membership is expected to be much more complex. In this respect, the EU member states should recognise the precedent and immediately start the accession negotiations with North Macedonia. Equally importantly, once commenced, EU institutions should avoid the trap of the Macedonian negotiations becoming a hostage of demands linked to the Prespa agreement, beyond the standard EU accession requirements.  

 Dr. Simonida Kacarska  is the Director of the European Policy Institute, Skopje, Macedonia. Naum Lokoski is Communication Officer at the Institute.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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