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Macedonian referendum backs new name to end Greek row

The vast majority of voters in Sunday's referendum in Macedonia supported a plan to rename the country aimed at ending a decades-long spat with Greece and unlocking a path to NATO and EU membership.

With ballots from 80 percent of polling stations counted, 91.2 percent of votes were in favour of the name changing to North Macedonia, compared to 5.6 percent opposing the move, according to the electoral commission's official count.

However, the vote was marred by a low turnout, with only a third of the electorate voting.

Greece reacted to the result with the Foreign Ministry saying it "remains committed" to its June agreement with Skopje under which Athens would drop its objections to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO in return for a change of name,

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expressed his support for his Macedonian counterpart in a telephone call in which he hailed the "determination and courage" of Zoran Zaev to "complete the implementation of this agreement", a government source told AFP.

Zaev had earlier voiced confidence that the country would support a yes vote.

"I think the huge majority of the citizens who voted have chosen the European path for Macedonia," the social-democrat leader said, an hour after the polls closed.

But two-thirds of voters stayed away from the polling stations for the non-binding referendum on whether to change the name of the country to "North Macedonia".

Zaev urged the rightwing opposition, who might well question the vote's credibility due to the low turnout, to "respect the democratic will of the citizens" and ratify the deal in parliament or face "early parliamentary elections".

For the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to ratify the result, Zaev and his coalition partners from the ethnic Albanian minority need at least a dozen MPs from the opposition to back the move.

Opponents of the change, who had called for a boycott of the name-change referendum, announced plans for a celebration outside parliament, where they had set up a stage during the afternoon. However, barely 300 people gathered there an hour and a half after the polls closed.

The vote is an emotional moment for a country that has struggled for recognition of its name since 1991, when the former Yugoslav republic declared independence.

At the time, Athens kicked up a major fuss, accusing Skopje of stealing the name of its own northern province, which is also called Macedonia.

The dispute dives deep into history with both countries vying to lay claim to Alexander the Great's ancient empire of Macedon, which spanned their territories.

Zaev has billed the referendum as a painful but "historic" opportunity to break the 27-year-old stalemate.

The June deal, however, has been openly opposed by Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the nationalist opposition and had supported calls for a boycott of the referendum.

- An open door? -

Few Macedonians are enthused about the new name, saying they have been unfairly bullied by Greece.

"I am not happy and I do not know anyone who likes this deal," said 55-year old Danica Taneska, who admitted voting 'no' to the change.

But a desire to anchor their future to the West -- and the economic prosperity that it could bring -- has been a driving force behind the 'yes' vote in one of Europe's poorest nations.

- Greece watching closely -

The referendum is not binding, but a 'yes' majority gives parliament a political mandate to change the constitution.

Sunday's vote was closely watched across the border in Greece, where nationalists staged a protest against the deal earlier this month.

"We hope for a positive outcome for the proceedings to progress with the constitutional review," Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said on the radio earlier.

"Any other result would create a disturbance."

- Western Balkans foothold -

Europe and the US have campaigned hard for the deal, with many leaders passing through Skopje this month to urge Macedonians to seize the "historic" opportunity.

NATO has already issued an invite -- on hold until the deal passes -- while EU accession talks are scheduled to begin next year.

The West is keen to have another foothold in the Western Balkans, a region where Russia, which is opposed to NATO expansion, has historically had influence.

At home, those in favour of the deal say a desire for an EU future is helping bind ethnic Macedonians with the Albanian minority, who are broadly pro-West.

While Macedonia avoided the full-scale inter-ethnic wars that rippled across the region during the collapse of Yugoslavia, it was roiled by an Albanian insurgency in 2001 that left more than 100 dead.

A peace deal was reached later that year granting Albanians more political rights, but tensions have remained.
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