The U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Macedonia yesterday, condemning Russian efforts to use its money and influence to build opposition to an upcoming vote that could pave the way for the country to join NATO, a move Moscow opposes.
Speaking after talks in Skopje with Macedonia's leaders, Mattis also said the United States was looking to expand cybersecurity cooperation with the small Balkan country.
"We do not want to see Russia doing there [in Macedonia] what they have tried to do in so many other countries," Mattis told reporters travelling with him to Skopje, apparently referring to Washington's concerns about the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other polls, according to Reuters.
"No doubt that they have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns," Mattis said, adding it was unclear how effective Moscow's efforts had been.
Russia denies the charges of meddling but strongly opposes Macedonia's plan to join NATO. Its ambassador in Skopje has said the country could become "a legitimate target" if relations between Russia and NATO deteriorate further.
Macedonians will vote Sept. 30 on whether to approve the new name of North Macedonia in an effort to placate Greece, which has for years blocked Macedonia's path to NATO and the European Union. But any progress toward NATO membership by the Balkan nation is strongly opposed by Russia, which doesn't want the alliance to expand to areas formerly under Moscow's influence. The referendum vote is non-binding, and polls indicate Macedonians will likely back the deal. But even if the turnout is below the required 50 percent, if most of the people vote "yes" it will give parliament and the government a mandate to proceed.
Mattis is the latest in a string of international leaders visiting Macedonia to voice support for the referendum, and he's the most senior U.S. official to visit. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz have visited and made public endorsements of the name change, saying it's critical in order for the country to join NATO after years of waiting.
NATO has invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but says it must first change its constitution and adopt the new name. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the deal.
Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of Macedonians will support the name deal, though nationalists oppose it. Macedonia's main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party repeated its position yesterday that "the agreement with Greece is the worst deal signed in the Macedonia's history."
And a pro-Russian small oppositional party, Unique Macedonia, strongly criticized Mattis' remarks on Moscow's efforts to use money to influence the opposition to defeat the referendum.
"For which Russian influence and which Russian money is speaking Jim Mattis when Macedonia is for 27 years a hostage to the pernicious influence of NATO and millions of euros from CIA payed to buy Macedonian authorities to serve them faithfully," the party press release issued yesterday said, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
Russia has already been called out for trying to influence the vote. In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats accused of supplying funds to protest groups who were opposing the name change deal. Russia denounced the expulsions as unjustified.
Greece, a member of NATO, has for years vetoed attempts by Macedonia to join NATO, complaining about the country's name since Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s. Greece argues that the name implies a territorial claim against the northern Greek region of Macedonia and its ancient heritage.