Analysis. Stevo Pendarovski is president of North Macedonia. He steps up to lead a country divided on ethnic lines and with many citizens still fuming over the country’s name change.

North Macedonia steps toward EU, NATO with social democrat victory

Stevo Pendarovski, who will soon take office as the new president of North Macedonia, will have his work cut out for him: there will be a giant stack of laws waiting on his desk for him to sign, which have been waiting for a presidential signature for months in order to enter into force. His predecessor, Gjorge Ivanov, has refused to sign them, for no other reason but the fact that they came on letterhead bearing the country’s new name—the real bone of contention, a name change that the Balkan state agreed to accept after a conflict with Athens that has lasted for almost 30 years. This name change has paved the way for Skopje’s accession to NATO and the EU.

Ivanov was the last indomitable opponent to the name change within the Macedonian institutions. He has denounced it in all political forums, in the country and abroad, in Europe and at the United Nations. According to him, the new name, North Macedonia, is an affront to national sovereignty, imposed by the country’s neighbor, which has been objecting to the name “Macedonia” that the former part of Yugoslavia gave itself at the time of its declaration of independence in 1991.

It fell to the Social Democratic Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, to put an end to this dispute. The agreement, signed last June on the shores of Lake Prespa, has left a long trail of accusations and recriminations in its wake. Nonetheless, all the obstacles that stood in the way of its entering into force were overcome one by one: the referendum, the ratification of the agreement before the Macedonian Parliament and then before the Greek one, and the constitutional changes required by the treaty.

Last Sunday’s presidential elections have marked the end of this chapter in the country’s history. Pendarovski, the Social Democratic candidate, won out at the ballot box with 51.66% of the votes, beating the conservative Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, with 44.73%. The choice could not have been clearer: Pendarovski, the common candidate put forward by the government coalition formed by the Social Democrats of the SDSM and the Albanian DUI party, has played a key role in the country’s accession to NATO.

The decisive factor was the vote of the Albanian community, which rallied around the newly elected president. In some Albanian-majority municipalities, such as Saraj, Zhelino or Bogovinje, the Social Democrat got over 90% of the vote. The referendum-like character of the vote allowed him to maintain a considerable lead over Saljenovska-Dankova. At the same time, the votes of the Macedonians of Slavic ethnicity were polarized, divided almost equally between the two candidates. This polarization reflects the rift caused by the agreement regarding the country’s name, which, understandably, was one of the dominant themes of the election campaign.

Another important figure was the turnout. On the eve of the presidential vote, there was a fear that there would not be enough of a turnout to validate the election, as it needed to reach the threshold of at least 40% of the eligible voters. This threshold was barely cleared in the first-round vote, when only 41.67% of the voters showed up to the polls.

In the second round, however, there was greater turnout, at 46.7%. That is a high percentage, when one takes into account the pattern of low turnout by Macedonians for presidential elections, which are usually held concurrently with others considered more important, such as the parliamentary and administrative elections.

However, the turnout was not uniform throughout the country. In many municipalities with a majority of Slavic Macedonians, the turnout exceeded 60%, while being as low as around 20% in many Albanian-majority precincts. On one hand, this disparity is a sign of how distant the Albanian minority feels from the country’s institutions; on the other hand, it is a sign of the need for stability that was felt particularly strongly by the Slavic Macedonian voters after years of political and institutional crisis.

These are the challenges that Pendarovski will face: bolstering unity, strengthening inter-ethnic relations and ensuring stability. On the international front, he will have the task of steering the country through the transition to being a member of both NATO and the EU, two institutions which are themselves in deep crisis, but which keep exerting a powerful pull in this corner of Europe nonetheless. While NATO membership is an objective that will presumably be finalized by the end of the year, EU membership may take years to accomplish. Moreover, last week, at the Berlin summit on the Balkans, French President Emmanuel Macron was very clear: Skopje will still have to wait before entering the crucial stage of the EU adhesion process. In Paris’s view, the fact that the country changed its name is an entirely secondary issue.

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