US Defense Secretary James Mattis has accused Russia of trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming referendum in Macedonia, which is intended to clear the way for the country to join NATO.
Mattis told reporters he has no doubt that the Russian government is financing pro-Russian groups in order to sabotage the referendum.
“They have sent money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns. We must give the Macedonians the opportunity to determine their own position,” Mattis remarked.
The referendum will ask the population whether they are willing to have the country’s name changed, as per an agreement with Greece, in order to facilitate the country’s acceptance into the EU and NATO. In the event of a positive response, Macedonia will be renamed to Northern Macedonia.
Speaking in Skopje after talks with the president of Macedonia, Mattis did not mention Russia, but did comment that the US would help the country with cybersecurity.
The referendum on changing the country’s name to “The Republic of Northern Macedonia” is scheduled for September 30. The name change would resolve a long-standing dispute with Greece, which is due to Greece having a region known as Macedonia. Fearing territorial claims from its neighbor, Athens has blocked Skopje from joining the EU and NATO.
In June this year, the foreign ministers of both countries signed a renaming agreement which would resolve the conflict. The Council of the EU then announced that Macedonia would be given the opportunity to join the EU in the middle of 2019. NATO sent Skopje an official invitation to join the alliance after resolving the name dispute with Athens.
On July 11, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and banned another two from entering the country, claiming that the Russians had attempted to bribe Greek officials in order to prevent an agreement from being reached with Macedonia.