It’s heartbreaking: Another European country turns to that nefarious destroyer of democracy, the popular referendum; another turbulent campaign of lies results; and much-needed integration is stymied in a troubled part of southeastern Europe.

This time the referendum measure is not even about any political or military conflict. It’s about a harmless one-word linguistic emendation that could resolve 27 years of bitter diplomatic dispute. All the little landlocked country involved had to do was to add the word “North” before its familiar name, and everything would be fine: Applications for entry to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could proceed without threat of a veto.

One cannot even refer to the nation in question without stoking controversy. When the United Nations admitted it to membership, they had to call it “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” — rather long for everyday use. Why not just “Macedonia?” Because Greece would bitterly object, and the U.N. can only admit a country if every other U.N. member country accepts its existence and its name.


Greece, you see, has a large northern area traditionally referred to as Macedonia, comprising three administrative divisions (Western Macedonia, Central Macedonia, and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace). Somehow — don’t ask me to explain the logic — the Greeks see the idea of a country thus named as some kind of threat or insult or implied territorial claim. As I related here on Lingua Franca in 2014, violence was triggered by something as minor as a meeting to launch a dictionary of Macedonian, the Slavic language (closely related to Bulgarian) spoken by a couple of million residents of the region, both sides of the border.

Wouldn’t “Republic of Macedonia” (Република Македонија in Cyrillic) fix it? That makes it quite clear it’s a separate country, and has been the country’s own name for itself since 1991. Reasonable enough?

No. Greece would still object.

The naming issue proved utterly intractable for more than a quarter of a century, but in 2017 a new government started serious negotiations and found a solution. Greece would not object to a new country to the north of its border called North Macedonia. That would solve everything. Plans to join the E.U. and NATO could go ahead.

But the name has to be legally changed, and the government thought the people should be consulted. The answer: a referendum.


I hate referenda. For three decades I watched as democracy in my home state of California was damaged by dishonest and misleading referendum measures on every state ballot — scores of them: laws and constitutional amendments inexpertly crafted by special-interest groups or deviously framed by corporate cartels, undercutting the authority of the elected representatives in Sacramento who are paid to make the laws. Then in 2014 and 2016 I watched as two referendum campaigns damaged the fabric of democracy in Britain — one sparking bitterness over Scotland–England relations, and the other leading to the triumph of the economically asinine idea that Britain should exit the E.U..

The referendum in the Republic of Macedonia sparked a war of hot rhetoric that defied common sense. The opposition to the government started a campaign to abstain — more damaging than a campaign to vote No, because the referendum had to have a turnout of more than 50 percent to be binding, and it’s much easier to get people to stay at home than to persuade them to go down to the polling station to vote against something.

The president, Gjorge Ivanov, joined the boycott, describing the proposed deal as “historical suicide.” Suicide! Solving a troublesome debate over nomenclature by adding a geographically descriptive adjective would be like the entire nation killing itself? Why?

Adding an adjective worked for the creation of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) and South Sudan (formerly part of Sudan). The name changes facilitated agreements ending rebellions that had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. Sure, the countries in question still languish at the bottom of the wealth table, two of the poorest countries on earth, with a recent history filled with violence. But at least the adjectives “East” and South” aren’t the issue, and their existence and their names are internationally recognized.

Sadly, the Macedonian opposition’s boycott has worked. It looks as if turnout was only about a third, rather than the 51 percent that would make the result binding. There will be trouble ahead for the government as it tries to legislate the name change without an adequate turnout (even though 90 percent of those voting said Yes). The Guardian cites evidence that Russia lent copious covert assistance to the dissenters (40 Facebook postings a day, and more), not wanting another Slavic-speaking nation to align itself more closely with the West; but the Russians wouldn’t interfere with the democratic affairs of another country, would they?