Macedonian referendum fails to resolve a decades-long name dispute
A name change referendum was held in Macedonia this Sunday. The question was whether to change the official name of the country from the Republic of Macedonia (also known in international organisations as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – FYROM) to North Macedonia.
The referendum, declared by the pro-western government of Zoran Zaev, asked whether Macedonia would join EU and NATO and accept the agreement with Greece changing its name to North Macedonia. While referendums in Macedonia are not legally binding, leaders of all major parties agreed that they would abide it.
Around 1,000 opponents of #Macedonia's 'name' deal w/ Greece are celebrating in Skopje tonight after today's referendum failed to reach the 50% threshold of voter turnout required to make it legally valid.
Around 35% of eligible voters took part.
— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) September 30, 2018
The name issue lies in the heart of a 27-year long dispute with neighbouring Greece. Both Macedonia and Greece used to be parts of the Roman province of Macedonia and both claim the heritage of Alexander the Great. According to Greece, the name implies some territorial claims in the neighbouring province of the same name. According to nationalist on both sides, the name is a key part of their respective nations’ identity.
Persistent opposition from Greece is preventing Macedonia from joining EU and NATO. Since 1991, several solutions were proposed and rejected. Finally, in June 2018, the Prime Ministers of Macedonia and Greece signed a memorandum stating that if Macedonia changes its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece would end the veto on its accession to NATO and the EU.
Even though the results show almost 95% support for the name change, the referendum failed because the turnout did not exceed 50%. In the end, only 37% of eligible voters turned out to vote, much thanks to the boycott campaign of nationalists and conservatives, using the hashtag #Boycott (#Бојкотирам). The opposition parties can now use the low turnout as an excuse to block the amendments of the constitution which require two-thirds of votes in parliament to pass.
Despite this setback, Macedonian PM Zaev wants to push the name change and make Macedonia a member of NATO and the EU. His position will not be easy – the opposition calls for the boycott of the referendum were supported by a disinformation campaign and bots on social media. Russia might have played a role in amplifying the explosive divide within the Macedonian society.
Decorated GRU officer identified in the Skripal poisoning
Early in September, British prosecutors charged two Russian citizens with attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The two men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, were believed to have used aliases to enter Britain.
Last week the real identity of one of them was revealed. According to a report by British Bellingcat and Russia’s Insider, one of the men is Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, a decorated Russian colonel of the GRU (military intelligence) who served in the conflicts in Chechnya and possibly in Ukraine. The information was later confirmed by sources from the Skripal investigation. Chepiga was made a Hero of the Russian Federation by a decree of President Putin in 2014.
Absolutely astonishing find. Person who uploaded Chepiga's 2001 Chechenya photo gets comment on June 20 2015 him with PPK that he has to be dispatched to Horlivka, Ukraine. Col. Chepiga gives away all his active brothers in arms.https://t.co/op9SRVhdPl pic.twitter.com/U8A6YGEApK
— lennutrajektoor (@lennutrajektoor) October 2, 2018
Subsequently, the Washington Post released a report from far eastern Russian village Berezovka, with several witnesses claiming to have recognised Chepiga, a former fellow villager.
Russian officials continue to deny any involvement in the poisoning and insist that the suspects were civilians. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov claims that “no one can tell which of these reports are false and which are true.” To the question of resemblance between Boshirov and Chepiga, he said: “We’ve got 10 Stalins and 15 Lenins running around Red Square, and all of them look extremely similar to the originals.”
British PM Theresa May commented on “the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU” in her UN speech. However, she has refrained from addressing the recent reports directly.
Sergei Kanev, one of the Russian journalists that helped to uncover Chepiga’s identity, has fled Russia, fearing retribution from the security services.
Deadly attack on Iranian military parade
Last Saturday, an Iranian military parade dedicated to the anniversary of the eight-year war with Iraq turned into tragedy. The annual Holy Defence Week parade in the city of Ahvaz in the southwest of Iran was attacked by four assailants wearing military uniforms and opening fire into a crowd which lasted for 10 minutes. The shooting left at least 24 dead and 60 injured including women and children.
The attack uncovered shortcomings of its main target – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – an elite military force which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is still unknown who is responsible for the attack. The Iranian government is blaming many different actors, including its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif claims “regional terror sponsors and their U.S. masters” are accountable. According to Brigadier General Shekarchi the perpetrators of the assault “are linked to America and (Israel´s Intelligence Service) Mossad”.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack but with no proof. An Arab separatist group – the Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz – says it is also responsible for the shooting. Nonetheless, the Iranian government summoned envoys from the UK, Netherlands, and Denmark accusing them of hosting “terrorist group” members.
The attack came amid rising tensions between Iran and the U.S. which started with Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran deal and re-imposing sanctions. The U.S. were forced to pull diplomats from the consulate in Basra, Iraq due to rising security concerns, blaming Iran for the rising violence.
U.S. sanction China for buying Russian jets and missiles
A new row of sanctions against Chinese military was imposed by the U.S. in retaliation for its recent purchases of Russian made weapons. The transaction, negotiated in 2017, involved a purchase of 10 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missile equipment.
According to the U.S. State Department, the transaction violated a law which was introduced in response to the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and its military actions in Syria and Ukraine. The law requires the U.S. to sanction anyone engaged in significant transactions with the Russian military, intelligence and arms exporters.
A Russian member of parliament Klintsevich stated that the sanctions will have no impact on the exports of its jets and missiles and all contracts “will be executed in line with the schedule”.
Tensions have been on the rise since Trump administration announced it will be imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, which in retaliation prompted a similar response from China. The newest row of sanctions has added even more fuel to the already tense trade war between the two countries. Despite the tense relationship, unnamed US official claims that “the ultimate target of these sanctions is Russia” and that the sanctions are “not intended to undermine the defence capabilities of any particular country”.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Ondřej Zacha.
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