US warns of Russian meddling in Macedonian referendum
Deal with Greece would help Macedonia join Nato despite Kremlin opposition
US defence secretary James Mattis and Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev. Photograph: Tomislav Georgiev/AFP/Getty Images
US defence secretary Jim Mattis has warned that Russia is trying to influence this month’s referendum in Macedonia, when its people will give their opinion on a deal with Athens that could allow it to join Nato next year.
Macedonians will vote on September 30th on a pact that would change their country’s name to North Macedonia, and see Greece in return lift its veto on its neighbour’s ambitions of joining both Nato and, eventually, the European Union.
Athens has blocked those hopes for 27 years, since Macedonia broke from a crumbling Yugoslavia, in protest at its use of the same name as a province of northern Greece and its perceived claim to the legacy of the region’s ancient ruler, Alexander the Great.
Moscow opposes Nato expansion in the Balkans, however, and in July Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred entry to two other Russians for allegedly bribing local officials and trying to stir up protests against the name deal, which is staunchly opposed by Greek and Macedonian nationalists.
“They have transferred money, and they’re also conducting broader influence campaigns. We ought to leave the Macedonian people to make up their own minds,” Gen Mattis said as he flew into Skopje for a one-day visit.
“We do not want to see Russia doing there what they have tried to do in so many other countries,” he added, with a nod to allegations that Russian agents tried to foment a coup in nearby Montenegro in 2016 to prevent it joining Nato the following year.
Alongside Macedonian premier Zoran Zaev and his defence minister, Radmila Sekerinska, Gen Mattis said “we plan to expand our cyber-security co-operation to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens both our democracies”.
With advocates of the deal concerned that the referendum turnout may not reach the required 50 per cent, Gen Mattis urged Macedonians to back a deal that he said would bring “enhanced security as well as strengthened economic development”.
“We are ready to welcome you as Nato’s 30th member,” he added.
Mr Zaev’s government hopes Macedonia could join the alliance in the first half of next year if its parliament gives the necessary two-thirds support for constitutional changes laid out in the deal and then Greece’s parliament also approves the accord.
Macedonian officials emphasise that the referendum is consultative, not binding, so the government would almost certainly put the agreement to a parliamentary vote even if the referendum was rendered invalid or the No camp won.
Advocates of the deal are eager to secure a strong popular mandate for the name change, however, and major EU and Nato powers are helping their campaign: in the past 10 days or so, Skopje has also welcomed German chancellor Angela Merkel; her Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz; Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg; and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Mr Zaev noted reports of fake news around the referendum and the name deal but said he had no evidence that Russia was to blame and called Moscow “a friend of Macedonia”.
In a recent interview with The Irish Times, Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov said his country’s security services were alert to the danger posed by disinformation. “We are vigilant. Our institutions are vigilant,” he said in Skopje.
“We are going through critical days and weeks. We will have a referendum, and that means that forces who would like to make this process fail will focus – and are focused – on the communication part of things.”
Aleksandar Nikoloski, deputy leader of the nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, which backs EU and Nato accession but opposes the name deal, also insisted that “people should be left alone to make their own decisions without any foreign influence”.