U.S. Defense Secretary warns of Russian meddling in Macedonia referendum

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis attend a welcoming ceremony in Skopje Macedonia

Speaking on the plane en route to Skopje, Mattis said it was up to the Macedonians to decide whether they wanted the change, which could open important doors for this country of 2.1 million.

Macedonians will vote September 30 on whether to approve the new name of North Macedonia is an effort to placate Greece, which has for years blocked Macedonia's path to NATO and the European Union.

"I do not have proof of any Russian influence here. the Russian Federation is a friend of Macedonia, and Russia has nothing against Macedonia's integration into the EU, but it is against our integration into North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and they say it very clearly", Prime Minister Zaev said at the "EU-Western Balkans: Media Days" event.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who arrived in Skopje on Monday, said on the eve of his arrival that "there is no doubt" that "Moscow has financed pro-Russian groups" to make sure that the referendum, to be held this month, fails.

"We don't want to see Russian Federation doing there what they have tried to do in so many other countries", he said.

The Greek government had received evidence that suggested the Russians tried to undermine the name deal made between Greece and Macedonia, with the diplomats in question taking the heat for the accusations.

In June, 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. Macedonia has a few dozen troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission.

"We also appreciate your offer to host USA forces at the Krivolak training area in your country", the secretary said.

With Russia imposing itself so harshly on the referendum campaign, there have been reports of Greek businessmen connected to the Russian administration seeking to "commit acts of violence" against pro-referendum campaigners.

Evelyn Farkas, an expert on the region who is a fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former Defense Department adviser, said Mattis' visit to the tiny nation could help sow support for the name change.

"I think Mattis could make or break this thing by delivering a strong message to the opposition which has been grudgingly quiet, that they need to come out in full-throated support, because they're not going to get another chance later", said Farkas.

On arrival, Mattis - the first U.S. defence chief to visit Skopje since 2004 - met his Macedonian counterpart Radmila Sekerinska and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who struck the name-change deal with Greece. "He can tell them this is their last chance". In Greece the nationalist circles have spoken out against the agreement with the Macedonians.

The United States spends almost $5 million a year in security assistance towards Macedonia and since 1991 has provided about $750 million in total assistance.

Polls indicate Macedonians will likely back the deal, but it's not clear if turnout will meet the required 50 percent for the vote to be valid.

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