Update: This story has been updated after the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia reported on the whereabouts of the ambassador on the day of the vote. For this reason, the verdict has also been changed from “unclear” to “misleading.”
On October 20, Macedonia’s parliament held a critical vote on changing the country’s official name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia. The name change would finally satisfy the demands of the Balkan nation’s neighbor, Greece, which has long blocked Macedonia’s efforts to enter the European Union and NATO due to the name controversy. The measure passed in parliament with the required two-thirds majority after eight members of parliament broke with their own party’s position and voted with the majority coalition.
The vote, one of several planned parliamentary votes before the constitution can be officially amended, follows Macedonia’s September 30 referendum, in which 90 percent of voters supported the name change, but overall turnout was below the 50 percent threshold required by the country’s election commission. The parliamentary vote went forward despite the low turnout due to the fact that the referendum was considered “non-binding,” and the constitution can only be changed via parliament.
From the beginning, Russia has opposed the name change vote, since it would lead to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO. Russian media encouraged Macedonians to boycott the vote. In August, Polygraph.info debunked reports by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti that Macedonia’s largest opposition party was officially boycotting the referendum. It did not. Another Russian state news outlet, Sputnik, claimed that most Macedonians were opposed to NATO and EU membership, but polls showed the opposite.
After Macedonia’s parliament passed the name-change, Russia claimed that the U.S. had masterminded and supervised the voting process in parliament to ensure the “right” result. Russia’s Foreign Ministry alleged, without evidence, that members of Macedonia’s parliament were offered bribes and/or blackmailed in order to secure their votes. It also claimed that members of parliament were “locked” in rooms and that their cell phones were confiscated. Again, the Russian Foreign Ministry provided no corroboration for these claims. Polygraph.info attempted to reach the Russian Foreign Ministry for further clarification, but the ministry did not respond to an e-mail inquiry.
It is true that the U.S. openly supported the name change, and even sent a senior diplomat to Skopje as a show of support. A U.S. State Department official denied the allegations of a U.S. hand in the matter, telling Polygraph.info, the allegations were “absurd.”
“Any suggestion that U.S. Embassy officials were involved in the parliamentary vote process is patently false,” the official wrote. “The United States welcomes the decision by Macedonia’s Parliament to initiate the constitutional changes needed to implement the Prespa Agreement with Greece. The United States believes that the Prespa Agreement is a historic opportunity to advance stability, security, and prosperity throughout the region.”
After this story was originally published, the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia responded to our request for information on the whereabouts of the U.S. ambassador and other U.S. diplomats on the day of the vote.
“Neither Ambassador Baily nor any American diplomats were in Parliament on October 20,” a spokesperson for the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section wrote.
Macedonia’s parliament released a statement in response to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s allegation, which was posted on the parliament’s website.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia considers the allegations made in the comment to be completely unfounded and untrue, as well as presented with a clear tendency to compromise the political process which is of historic importance for the Republic of Macedonia and all its citizens,” the statement reads. “The MPs at the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia, in full conformity with all democratic principles and proscribed parliamentary procedure, adopted a decision that reflects the decades-long commitment of the Republic of Macedonia to membership in NATO and the European Union as its strategic priority enjoying the widest possible social consensus and one which has long since been well known to our Russian friends.”
After the allegations of bribery and pressure on members of Macedonia’s parliament, Elizabeta Kanceska-Milevska, former Minister of Culture and one of the eight members who voted for the name change, went on Macedonian television to refute the claims about pressure and bribery.
“I made the decision to vote in that manner without any outside pressure, from either of the parties,” she said in the interview. “I firmly stand behind my decision. I personally believe that we should start the debate on the amendments and see where it take us. I call on anyone who suspects that bribing of any kind took place, to investigate further, and I say it publically, nobody offered me anything in exchange of a vote, neither the opposition nor the Government.”
In the our initial analysis, our judgment was to make the verdict “unclear." We changed our verdict from “unclear” to “misleading” on Monday, October 29, after receiving a direct response from the U.S. Embassy regarding the whereabouts of the ambassador on that day. In its initial statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not provide any evidence to back up its charges. They did not respond to Polygraph.info's request for commentary on the matter.
We can go no further, at this time, with other questions still not answered – particularly In our query we sent questions to the Macedonian Foreign Ministry and parliament, asking specific questions about the detailed claims made by Russia -- such as the one about legislators being locked in rooms, their cellphones confiscated. We received no direct answers, only the statements detailed above.
It is important to keep in mind that last week’s vote will not be the final one to decide the issue of changing Macedonia’s constitution and the country’s name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia.