US defense chief to visit Macedonia, concerned about Russian ‘mischief’

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks at a press conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, USA, 28 August 2018. [Shawn Thew/EPA/EFE]

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday (11 September) he would visit Macedonia before the 30 September referendum on changing the country’s name, also expressing concern about suspected Russian interference in the vote, which Moscow denies.

Macedonia scheduled the referendum on the government’s deal in June with neighboring Greece to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia which would open the door for it to join NATO and the European Union.

Macedonia to hold referendum on name change on 30 September

Macedonia’s parliament yesterday (30 July) set 30 September as the date for a referendum on changing the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, a high-stakes vote aimed at resolving a long-running row with Greece and clearing the path to join NATO and the EU.

The country has received several important visitors in recent days, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first visit by a German chancellor in the country’s 27 year history.

We are ready to welcome you, NATO chief tells Macedonia

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Macedonians on Thursday (6 September) to vote in a referendum to embrace a deal on its name with neighbouring Greece and join the defence alliance.

“I am concerned about it… The kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia, it always has adapted to the specific situation and it’s always beyond the pale,” Mattis, who will visit Macedonia over the weekend, told reporters.

Mattis said he wanted to make it clear the United States supported the Macedonian people.

NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the name deal.

Macedonia’s roadmap to NATO accession explained

As expected, Macedonia received an official invitation to join the NATO alliance yesterday (11 July), a month after it reached an agreement with Athens on its new name.

Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has criticized Macedonia’s ambitions to join NATO, saying it could become “a legitimate target” if relations between NATO and Russia deteriorate further.

Greece, a member of both NATO and the EU, has refused to accept the Balkan country’s name, saying it implies territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia and amounts to an appropriation of its ancient civilization.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government, elected in 2017, pushed for an agreement with Greece. Nationalists, including President Gjorge Ivanov, oppose the deal saying it is against the constitution.

End of Macedonia’s name dispute opens road to EU talks and NATO membership

Macedonia and Greece yesterday (12 June) resolved a nearly three-decade row by agreeing to the name Republic of North Macedonia, opening the road for the landlocked country to start EU accession talks and to join NATO.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev …

In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two other people from entering the country, accusing them of having meddled by encouraging demonstrations and bribing unidentified officials to thwart the Macedonia agreement.

Russia has denied wrongdoing and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.

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