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Country name change dispute haunts Macedonian presidential election

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Country name change dispute haunts Macedonian presidential election
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REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
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Macedonians vote in a presidential election on Sunday shaping up as an unofficial referendum on the hotly disputed change of the country's name to North Macedonia under a deal with Greece.

The country held an actual referendum on the issue last year but it was invalidated due to insufficient turnout. Skopje's parliament later ratified the accord, which opened the door to Macedonian membership of the European Union and NATO.

But the name change, which Greece demanded to end what it called an implied territorial claim on its northern province also called Macedonia, continues to polarise Macedonians and has eclipsed all other issues in the presidential election campaign.

A 24-metre-(79-foot)-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje's main square casts the dispute in sharp relief.

Plans to attach a new plaque to the statue saying it belongs to Hellenic culture was agreed as part of the deal but has angered many conservative Macedonians who say Alexander's ancient heritage was Macedonian, not Greek.

"Society is deeply divided among those in favour and those against the agreement," said political analyst Petar Arsovski. That extends to the two main presidential candidates, neither of whom are polling anywhere near a majority.

A recent poll put Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling centrist coalition of the Social Democrats and the minority Albanian DUI party, who promise to implement the name change settlement, at 28.8 percent of the electorate.

His main rival, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor supported by the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party which fiercely opposed the deal, trailed with 26.8 percent of the votes, the poll found.

Blerim Reka, the candidate of the second largest ethnic Albanian party Besa, is forecast to come third with around seven percent of the votes.

Barring a majority winner on Sunday, a second round run-off will be held on May 5 to decide the contest.

The presidency of the ex-Yugoslav republic is a mostly ceremonial post, but acts as the supreme commander of the armed forces and also signs off on parliamentary legislation.

The refusal of outgoing nationalist President Gjeorge Ivanov to sign some bills passed by parliament has delayed the implementation of some key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language - 18 years after an ethnic Albanian uprising that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war.

But the presidency had no authority to block constitutional amendments that were passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament to enable the name change to North Macedonia.

"There is no dilemma for me. We have to move forward - the EU and NATO are the only way. We need a president that will stick to that," Elena Stojanova, 35, a shop vendor in Skopje, told Reuters.

No trust in politicians

The pro-Western government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said it hopes to hear from the EU in June when Skopje can start talks on membership, but that prospect is clouded by scepticism within the bloc about the wisdom of further enlargement.

VMRO-DPMNE supporters also favour EU and NATO membership but say the name change deal, a key precondition for such progress, has undermined the country's South Slav identity.

"I don’t think anyone in this country is against the EU or, God forbid, sees no future in Europe. But the price we have to pay is too high," said Petar Kostadinov, 65, a pensioner.

"To change our name, to give up our language and our identity? No - we are Macedonians and our country is called Macedonia. There must be another way.”

Analysts say turnout in Sunday's vote could be low due to voter fatigue, dispute over voter lists and disappointment at the government's failure to make good on promises to secure more foreign investment and reduce high unemployment.

"People are disappointed in politics," said Suzana Dobrevska, a Skopje resident. "People have no trust in politicians, and that is why they don't want to vote."

(Reporting Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Mark Heinrich)