Macedonians voting on changing country's name to North Macedonia

A woman holds a “Yes” poster during a rally in Tetovo Macedonia on Sept. 27 before this weekend’s referendum on changing Macedonia’s name

"I think it would be very hard for the prime minister to reach the deal with the opposition lawmakers over the constitutional changes and to continue with the next phase", Political analyst Petar Arsovski said. Polls opened at 7am (0500 GMT) and are to close at 7pm in the referendum on whether to accept or reject the deal. The critics included President Gjorge Ivanov, who called the agreement with Greece a "flagrant violation of sovereignty".

"I congratulate those citizens who voted in today's consultative referendum and made use of their democratic freedoms", EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement. Referendum opponents celebrated the weak turnout, chanting "Macedonia" outside Parliament in the capital, Skopje.

A vote on a referendum to change Macedonia's name in an effort to end a decades-old dispute with Greece won overwhelming support from those who voted, but fell far short of the 50 percent turnout required to validate the change.

Athens argues that the name belongs exclusively to its own northern province called Macedonia, and accuses its Balkan neighbour of harbouring territorial ambitions.

"As a result, the onus is now on the Parliament of FYROM and we hope that the initiative of the government of Mr Zaev for constitutional reform will bear fruit", the spokesman added, referring to FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

That means it could interpret the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of how many voters participated.

"As Macedonia's parliament now begins deliberation on constitutional changes, we urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions", State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski gave the 1 p.m. turnout figure.

The dispute has been a stumbling block in relations for almost three decades ago, when the country officially became the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short.

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The name deal has inflamed nationalist passions inside Macedonia, where many opponents of the current government, including some who describe themselves as pro-Western, said the bargain was an unacceptable humiliation at Greece's hands.

The refusal of Macedonia's voters to endorse a change in their country's name seems, at first glance, to be a matter of purely local interest.

Zaev cast his ballot in the southeastern town of Strumica and urged his fellow citizens to ensure a strong turnout. He said he was confident of a strong turnout that would prove Macedonians are in favor of joining North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and eventually the European Union.

Macedonia's economy is sputtering after a two-year financial crisis that pushed unemployment above 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the Balkans, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.

"I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations", he said.

But protests have been held in both countries against the agreement.

Macedonians were deciding on their country's future Sunday, voting whether to accept a landmark deal ending a decades-long dispute with neighbouring Greece by changing their country's name to North Macedonia.

The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.

Alexander was from a Hellenistic culture, so Greeks argue that the Slavic-speaking Macedonians have no right to claim his heritage in addition to arguing that the name change would suggest territorial aspirations. His governing coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks head Panos Kammenos, has vowed to vote against the deal, leaving Tsipras reliant on opposition parties and independent lawmakers to push it through.

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