US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he will visit the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) before a September 30 referendum on changing the country’s name, also expressing concern about suspected Russian interference in the vote, which Moscow denies.
FYROM 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.
“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 FYROM over the weekend, told reporters on Tuesday.
Mattis said he wanted to make it clear the United States supported the people of FYROM.
NATO invited FYROM 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 FYROM accession talks pending implementation of the name deal.
Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has criticized FYROM’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.
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 FYROM agreement.
Russia has denied wrongdoing and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.