Spas Tashev: 91% support for NATO and EU is a success

It appears that synthetic identity is more important to the people of Macedonia than the solution of their real problems

The referendum's result was absolutely predictable although I expected the voter turnout to be slightly higher. In fact, this shows that rather divergent processes are running among different groups of the population in Macedonia. In this case we have two proclaimed winners. More than likely, it means that the agony of Macedonia will be prolonged.We made a fundamental mistake believing that Euro-Atlantic integration means automatic elimination of the existing problems.

Mr Tashev, have you expected this result of the referendum in Macedonia, and how would you comment on the low turnout?

The referendum's result was absolutely predictable although I expected the voter turnout to be slightly higher. In fact, this shows that rather divergent processes are running among different groups of the population in Macedonia. On the one hand, the turnout rate among the ethnic Albanian minority is readily explained. At the same time, however, I expected that in these communities it would be even higher. Apparently, the maximum mobilisation was not achieved, which shows that the Albanians stuck to a wait-and-see policy, motivated by them estimating their chances to revert the referendum in order to make it valid. As you know, that could have happened if 50% of the voters had cast their ballots. As soon as they realised that they cannot succeed, they felt demotivated to a certain extent. What surprised me, though, was high turnout in some eastern municipalities of the Republic of Macedonia, namely in Strumica region and Kriva Palanka, which are close to Bulgaria. In all likelihood, through our country they see their own Euro-Atlantic future. It came as a surprise to me.

Then what signal does this low turnout send?

In principle, a trap had been set.

What kind of trap? Was it the manner in which the referendum question was posed? Some experts believe that there were even two traps.

The 'trap' is in the point that it was supposed that the referendum would be valid if 50% of the voters come to the polls, having in mind that the last census in Macedonia was in 2002, and we do not know exactly how many people currently live in the country. Therefore, to peg the result to the exact number of people would be a pitfall, and the referendum evidently encountered it. I would like to remind that during the Kosovo crisis 150,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who moved to Macedonia were granted Macedonian citizenship. Now it is very hard to say where these people live - in Kosovo or in Macedonia, as they have real property in both countries. Seen from this angle, the turnout barrier was raised artificially. In my opinion, the actual turnout has been higher, but bearing in mind the number of the population, it is reported as low, which is the greatest stumbling block. In principle, in Macedonia they have a tradition of formulating ambivalent questions. Already during the independence referendum, the question asked was also posed in this way. It ran as follows: “Are you for a sovereign and independent state of Macedonia with the right to enter into any alliance with sovereign states of Yugoslavia?” I personally would not know how to interpret this question. Evidently, a similar problem exists now too.

Was the question really dovetailed with the country's future and its European integration?

In practice it was. I think that if the question was divided into two parts - one about the NATO and EU membership, and the other about the name change - the majority would have voted for the EU and NATO membership but would have not supported the name change. To a great extent, the 'merger' of these parts rendered the referendum doomed.

Despite the fact that it is non-binding.

Exactly so! The Macedonian premier was aware of it and for this reason declared it successful.

You say that Zaev was aware of the consequences, but already early in the referendum day he extended his thanks to Bulgaria and qualified the day as a cause for celebration. Later he said that he would not resign. How would you explain that?

Be that as it may, 91% of votes in favour of NATO and EU is a success. It is a matter of interpretation. In this case we have two proclaimed winners. More than likely, it means that the agony of Macedonia will be prolonged. Now the issue is to be solved in the parliament. They need about 10 MPs and we ascertained that if they use the mechanisms of the executive power, then maybe 10 MPs of the opposition could be won easier than convincing the whole population of Macedonia to accept some other mode of behaviour. We'll see what will happen. If the parliament fails, Macedonia will lapse into permanent political instability. The presidential election is due this spring, and if the name change is not passed by the parliament, then Zaev will table his resignation, in my opinion. And this will precipitate early elections. At the same time there will be early elections in Greece. In a nutshell, the entire region becomes dependent on Macedonia's problems. The ethnic Albanians of Macedonia in a certain way also affect the policy of Kosovo and Albania. That is why I think that the Bulgarian politicians rather took a passive stand and to a certain extent were asleep at the wheel when dealing with these matters.

Do we have reasons to feel concerned if Macedonia lapses into a period of instability?

I think we have. We made a fundamental mistake believing that Euro-Atlantic integration means automatic elimination of the existing problems of the two countries. Without doing our job, we can hardly expect a radical change of public opinion in Macedonia. Until recently, they at least had one government - that headed by Zaev - which demonstrated stability. Hence, the work of the Bulgarian-Macedonian joint commission set up to solve the matters of disagreement will also be questioned if we witness instability in Macedonia.

What developments do you foresee, having in mind that the opposition in Macedonia feels triumphant while Zaev also declared victory?

There is, however, a third group that feels triumphant, and these are the Macedonian Albanians. Essentially, they are the factor which demonstrated the strongest will for Euro-Atlantic integration. That is to say that the important political factors will pay increasingly close attention to the political demands of the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, and these are to a great extent related to their concept for comprehensive solution of the Albanian issue on the Balkans. Therefore, from this point of view the situation is getting more complicated.

Actually, this is the third referendum in the history of Macedonia. What lessons do we have to learn, do these public votes have future?

I frequently quote as an example the first referendum in Macedonia, which was a joint one for both Macedonia and Bulgaria. This was the public vote held immediately after the issue of the Sultan's firman for the Bulgarian Exarchate. According to this firman, it was envisaged that if two-thirds of the Macedonian population voted for the accession to the Bulgarian Exarchate, the Macedonian bishopric had to join it too. Actually, this probably was the most massive public vote in the entire history of Macedonia. Maybe Bulgaria should draw one most important conclusion: it is responsible for the destiny of many people living in the Republic of Macedonia. There are about 200,000 people who have declared their Bulgarian identity and applied for Bulgarian citizenship. At the least, Bulgaria bears responsibility for these people. In reality the number of people of Bulgarian descent is much greater. In the 21st century the borders will not play such an important role compared with the impact of ideas on social and cultural domains. They will define the geopolitical power of the states. Hence, we must protect the Bulgarian communities.

How did Bulgaria benefit and what did it lose as a state after the Prespa agreement?

In fact, during the past 29 years Bulgaria has lost a lot because it failed to constitute itself as a party in an argument about the name of the Republic of Macedonia. The accent in the argument was shifted from the Macedonia created in 1945 to the Macedonia that existed during the Antiquity. They became blank spots.

Will the way to the country's European integration be long?

Evidently it is a long way. Moreover, it does not depend only on the population of Macedonia, or even on the will of the neighbouring countries. The problems are complex and very often the solutions do not depend on local politicians. Of course, we should not retreat from our objectives. It is high time Bulgaria developed a strategy for Macedonia and realised that without setting foot in this country in terms of culture and economy we cannot expect that the public opinion about Bulgaria will change there. Bulgaria does not have its media, or newspapers, or TV channels in Macedonia, while we have to stir a lasting interest in our country. Until we fail to do that, we will most likely remain under the spell of romantic illusions.

And will Macedonia remain in their own romantic realm for long?

If we are talking about the population of Macedonia in particular, I can say that they go on living in some sort of a synthetic dream. Presumably, this synthetic identity proved to be more important to them than the solution of real problems. Evidently propaganda yields results.

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Spas Tashev graduated from the Diplomatic Institute with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the University for National and World Economy, and from Thrace University. He is the founder and the first director of the Bulgarian Cultural and Information Centre in Skopje and former deputy chair of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad. Spas Tashev is a Doctor of statistics and demography of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. His specialist field is international migration. Tashev takes an active part in the updates of the National Demographic Strategy of Bulgaria. He is also the author of several monographs, research articles and popular-science publications.

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