People in Macedonia are heading to the polls to cast their ballot in a referendum on whether to change their country’s name to “the Republic of North Macedonia” and settle a long-running dispute with Greece and pave the way for NATO and European Union (EU) membership.
Polling stations opened across Macedonia at 07:00 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 7 p.m.
Some 1.8 million voters are eligible to vote.
“Are you for NATO and EU membership with the acceptance of the agreement with Greece?” the referendum question reads.
The vote is regarded as one of the last hurdles for a deal reached between Macedonia and Greece in June to resolve their decades-long name dispute, which has prevented Macedonia from joining major Western institutions since its birth in 1991, when the Balkan country declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Greece — which has a province in its north also called Macedonia — has accused Skopje of harboring territorial ambitions by using the name of that province.
Athens has for several times vetoed Macedonia’s entrance into NATO and the EU, and forced its Balkan neighbor to enter the United Nations under a provisional name as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, reached a landmark compromise in June under which Athens would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO in return for the name change.
The deal to settle a dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name will have to be ratified at the parliaments of the two countries and also survive a referendum in Macedonia.
The Sunday referendum is advisory and not legally binding, but enough members of the Macedonian parliament have said they would abide by its outcome to make it decisive. Macedonia’s center-left government requires a two-thirds majority to secure parliamentary approval.
Opinion polls have shown that a large majority of Macedonian voters — more than 80 percent —are likely to back the deal.
Zaev says accepting a new name is a price worth paying for admission into the EU and NATO, arguing that the memberships will bring much-needed investment in the country with an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent. Nationalist opponents, however, maintain that the deal would undermine the ethnic identity of the country’s Slavic majority population.
Critics of the name change deal include President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist opposition and has said he would not approve the deal. The president has a veto, and his vote of disapproval would render all the of the government’s efforts, as well as the results of the referendum, ineffective, unless he changes his mind.
Protests have previously been held in Both Macedonia and Greece over the name change deal.