To many outsiders the dispute between Greece and Macedonia may seem petty, yet the outcome of this referendum will have a significant impact on Balkan stability.

On Sunday September 30, Macedonians will decide whether they will rename their country and call it the “Republic of Northern Macedonia.”

This follows the Prespa Agreement reached on Sunday June 17, 2018, in which the Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev met Alexis Tsipras his Greek counterpart.

After months of negotiations the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” — as it is has been known at the United Nations for the last 25 years, referred to as Macedonia by the Macedonians, but rejected by the Greeks — would now be known as the "Republic of Northern Macedonia."

The Prespa Agreement would allow both Greece and Macedonia to “step out of the past and look to the future” said Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

Yet the agreement far from quenching tensions has stoked new ones.

For Greek nationalists, the name “Macedonia” refers to the northern part of their country. So when in 1991 Macedonia officially adopted this name for their country, many in Greece viewed it as a stake on their land.

Opposition to the referendum

The chorus of voices against the referendum has grown with time. One of the harshest critiques of the referendum has come from the Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who has pitted himself in opposition to the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

“Macedonian national identity will change, and the 74-year right to self-determination is violated, state legal identity is erased as well as the 27-year history of the state … This treaty legally eliminates the Macedonian people. They want to persuade the Macedonian people to commit suicide.”

More recently speaking at the United Nations on September 27, the president denounced the “bitter fruit of a tree that has been poisoned" while imploring his people to avoid voting. 

Earlier last month a group of academics, poets, artists, journalists and diplomats both from within and outside of Macedonia penned their name to a letter published in the Balkan Insider.

The authors argued that the Macedonian people are being “subjected to arbitrary international engineering against the will of the people.”

The writers claimed that the agreement not only changes how the country identifies itself but also how history books ought to refer to the Macedonian people subjecting the country to “Orwellian sanctions” if they do not abide.

A polarised debate

Professor James Pettifer at Oxford University is a leading critic of the Prespa Agreement and told TRT World  that the agreement is “destabilising both internally and for the region. And in my opinion both illegal and against the constitution.

He added that, “the constitution provides no basis to change the name of the state" and that it's just "an artificially imposed construct largely from the United States to achieve a short term political objective.”

That political objective? To join NATO and halt perceived Russian influence in the small Balkan country. 

Cvetin Chilimanov, a journalist and former advisor to the current Macedonian president I spoke with, also cast doubt on the referendum process.

An advocate against the referendum he believes, “the referendum is held on a confusing question – it is not purely a referendum to change the name of the Republic of Macedonia into the Republic of North Macedonia. This type of a clear question would have failed.”

By bundling the NATO and EU question with the name change, the government of Macedonia is aiming to drum up turnout for the vote, widely regarded as lacklustre. As a result many are deciding to boycott.

The boycott movement is around 17 percent of the population, which is not a small number, but could help consolidate a feeling of resentment in a section of the population. 

I put concerns over the wording of the referendum questions to Professor Lydia Miljan at the University of Windsor in Canada, who has looked at referendum questions, and whether this question in Macedonia meets international standards

When asked if the referendum question, "Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?" was problematic, Professor Miljan said, “the question appears biased, as it is framed in the positive. It also has a bias to authority in the statement of 'accepting the agreement between'."

“It seems to me that it is not a simple question as there are at least three things being asked, which may or may not be mutually exclusive: the EU and NATO membership are combined, and the acceptance of the agreement,” she added.

The result, according to Chilimanov, is that the referendum is far from being about whether the country ought to change its name, and rather has become an issue about NATO and EU membership.

“Billboards literally call the public to "vote for Macedonia in EU and NATO" and omit to say that it will not be Macedonia but North Macedonia that might join these institutions.”

While for others such as Metodija Koloski, Co-Founder and President of the United Macedonian Diaspora there is no guarantee that the Prespa Agreement will deliver on what is being promised mainly EU or NATO membership.

The agreement, according to Metodija places the onus on Macedonians to change the constitution while offering "no guarantees that Greece and the Greek people will fulfil their end of the bargain" and unblock Macedonias EU aspirations. 

In particular since the majority of Greek people are against the agreement.

Between the past and the future

Not everyone, however, feels the same way. 

Ethnic Albanians who comprise anywhere between 25 percent and 30 percent of the population have largely been bystanders as the Slavic majority fretted about its name with its neighbour.

A majority of Macedonians, including ethnic Albanians, want Macedonia to join the EU and NATO, whereas opinion regarding the name change is more divided and polarised. All Albanian political parties have come out in favour of the name change.

I spoke with Latif Mustafa, Editor in Chief of Shenja TV, a popular local Albanian magazine and broadcaster. 

Mustafa is a critical supporter of the referendum and argues it could unlock “political, strategic and diplomatic benefits” long denied by Greece.

In particular for the Albanian community, he suggests that the name change will result in the democratisation of what it means to be Macedonian. The current state narrative in Macedonia has had an "excluding agenda toward Albanians” according to Mustafa. 

The Republic of North Macedonia will be based on its geographic position rather than staking a claim based on one particular ethnicity.

However, even supporters of the deal are worried that a low turnout could damage the legitimacy of the referendum. 

Some surveys have shown that interest in voting is likely to be low, and for the referendum to be successful more than 903,000 votes are needed, which is far from certain.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Democracy Societas for Democracy suggested that while the Yes campaign is in the lead there are concerns that the boycott movement could impact an already low turnout, which could be between 43 percent and 49 percent but well within the margin of error.

I spoke to Misha Popovikj, a researcher and one of the authors of the report working at the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje. 

One of the main drivers for people voting in the referendum, according to Misha is “a clear process to joining the EU because without the name resolution there is no clear prospect of even starting negotiations with the EU.”

Another driver for people voting in the referendum according to Misha is that the the referendum will finally draw a line under the dispute with Greece. 

Foreign interference

In recent months western leaders in quick succession have visited Macedonia.

The General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg has visited Macedonia twice. He was followed by the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s visit in September, which in turn was followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Former US President George W Bush released a statement on a presidential letter headed paper urging Macedonians to support the referendum. 

And only this week, President Macron released a video stating, “I strongly support it and firmly believe this agreement is good for you.”

And while Russia has been accused of meddling in Macedonia, the overt interference from western European nations is understated. 

However, for Professor Pettifer the referendum "actually encourages outside players now, the fate of Macedonia is open. The idea because Macedonia is in the EU and NATO ends the Macedonian issues is really quite ludicrous and childish."  

And so this Sunday as Macedonian voters head to the polls, questions of identity, the EU, NATO, a possible end to international isolation will be on the mind of voters. But a larger geopolitical tussle between Russia and America is also on the ballot as both countries vie for power over this small landlocked country.

In the middle of this power struggle lies a small population concerned about jobs and security, trying to figure out how to best shape a future for their children.