SKOPJE, North Macedonia — Zoran Zaev, the front-runner in a general election on Wednesday in North Macedonia, got more done during his 30 months as prime minister than most Macedonian politicians did in the nearly 30 years since the country won independence from Yugoslavia.
When Mr. Zaev resigned from the premiership in January, to allow a caretaker government to oversee the election campaign, he had brought North Macedonia to the brink of NATO membership. He had cleared the way for the country to apply to join the European Union. And he had resolved a three-decade-old dispute with the country’s largest neighbor, Greece.
And yet Mr. Zaev could still lose Wednesday’s election, partly thanks to anger at the measure he took to achieve all this: the addition of the qualifier “North” to the country’s old name of Macedonia. That move persuaded Greece to stop blocking the country’s applications to join NATO and the European Union, now confident that Skopje had no territorial ambitions over an area of northern Greece also known as Macedonia.
But it enraged Macedonians who felt that Mr. Zaev had eroded their identity, and who resented how he ratified the amendment in Parliament despite most voters boycotting a referendum on the subject.
“I come from Macedonia, not North Macedonia,” said Robert Mileski, a blogger and software developer who voted for Mr. Zaev in the last election but now describes that decision as “the biggest mistake in my life.”
“He doesn’t have the right to put his own will before the will of the people,” Mr. Mileski added.
A loss on Wednesday for Mr. Zaev’s center-left party would spell uncertainty not only for North Macedonia, a landlocked and mountainous country of 2 million, but for the wider region of southeastern Europe, where several of the issues underpinning the Balkan Wars of the 1990s remain unresolved two decades later.
Mr. Zaev’s biggest rival, Hristijan Mickoski, a right-wing nationalist, opposed the name change. Mr. Mickoski also wants to revisit parts of not only the agreement with Greece but also a similar pact with Bulgaria and a recent law that increased rights for ethnic Albanians, who form around a quarter of North Macedonia’s population.
“If we are not stable,” Mr. Zaev said in an interview last week, “if we are fighting with our neighbors, if we are fighting with the Albanians inside North Macedonia, it puts the country completely in danger.”
In a separate interview, Mr. Mickoski said he supported the country’s NATO membership and application to join the European Union. But he also promised to work within constitutional limits to alter the pact with Greece.
“He can’t ignore the reality,” Mr. Mickoski said, talking about himself in the third person. “But at the same time, he will use all democratic tools to change that reality.”
If Mr. Mickoski does win power, few expect him to formally reverse the agreement with Greece.
But some analysts fear he would create enough turbulence with Greece and Bulgaria that one or both might renew their opposition to North Macedonia’s E.U. application, diverting the energy and attention of international mediators from other regional tensions.
In particular, that would distract from efforts to broker a final settlement between Serbia and Kosovo, the former Serbian province that broke away in 1999 following a guerrilla campaign by ethnic Albanian separatists and a NATO bombing campaign that aimed to protect its largely Albanian population from ethnic cleansing.
“I do think it will be a problem for the region,” said Petar Arsovski, a Skopje-based political analyst. “We’re not over the hill yet. We can still roll back down.”
Like the rest of the Balkans, North Macedonia is a field of competition for the West, Russia and China. Any deviation from a pro-European path could give Moscow a chance to reimpose itself, particularly with European powers divided about how much they want to engage with North Macedonia.
Even after Mr. Zaev staked his political career on the name change, France briefly blocked the country from applying to join the European Union — only relenting after Mr. Zaev resigned in despair and called for new elections.
A loss for Mr. Zaev might also exacerbate internal tensions between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, some of whom led a failed separatist uprising in 2001.
In this election, Mr. Zaev’s party is running on a slate with an ethnic Albanian party — a rare partnership in a country where parties tend to divide along ethnic lines.
Mr. Zaev has also attempted to bridge the divide between the two communities by introducing a law that gave ethnic Albanians the right to speak their language within state institutions and installed Albanian signage in settlements with significant Albanian populations.
Mr. Mickoski wants to revisit that law, a move many Albanians say would be a provocation, particularly if it came in tandem with any challenges to European integration.
“Albanians are more Western-orientated, so shifting from that road will create an internal split,” said Albert Musliu, an ethnic Albanian political analyst and rights activist. “Every stepping back from E.U. integration creates a tension between the two communities.”
Rights activists and business leaders alike are also concerned about what a loss for Mr. Zaev would mean for the rule of law.
Mr. Zaev entered office in 2017 after Mr. Mickoski’s party, which had been in power for 11 years, was toppled by a series of scandals related to graft and government surveillance.
The State Department concluded in 2015 that Mr. Mickoski’s predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, had overseen high levels of corruption, did not full respect the rule of law, tried to restrict media freedom and meddled in judicial decisions.
Under Mr. Zaev, North Macedonia began tentative legal reforms and became slightly more democratic, according to an assessment by Freedom House, an independent Washington-based rights watchdog.
Coupled with a stronger international profile, this has made North Macedonia a more appealing place to do business. Since the pact with Greece was signed in 2018, the number of companies working in the country’s free economic zones has more than doubled to 40.
Some fear a change of government would slow this investment.
“Everyone is looking for the rule of law and the stabilization of Macedonia,” said Goran Maurovski, the head of Beton, a major construction firm.
But Mr. Zaev’s critics say he is himself willing to bend the rule of law when it suits his agenda.
To secure the support of eight opposition lawmakers needed to ratify the name deal through Parliament, Mr. Zaev controversially agreed to support an amnesty for lawmakers or their relatives who were under investigation over cases including a 2017 attack on the Parliament building.
“Is that democratic?” said Mr. Mileski, the blogger who once supported Mr. Zaev. “Either you are a democrat or you are not.”
This kind of frustration, combined with outrage at the name deal, will be Mr. Zaev’s greatest obstacle to re-election on Wednesday.
At a rally for Mr. Mickoski, Vijana Milosevska, a 31-year-old salesperson, said she hoped Mr. Zaev would lose so that the country’s name could be changed back to Macedonia.
“It’s not important for us to enter the E.U. — we can survive by ourselves on our own land,” Ms. Milosevska said.
“If the Russians give us a better offer,” she added, “why not?”
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting from Skopje.
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