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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Jim Mattis condemns Russian influence in Macedonia

Macedonians will vote on September 30 whether to approve the name North Macedonia in an effort to placate Greece

James Mattis and Macedonia PrimeMinisterM Zoran Zaev hold a joint press conference in Skopje. AFP
James Mattis and Macedonia PrimeMinisterM Zoran Zaev hold a joint press conference in Skopje. AFP

United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis condemned on Monday Russia’s efforts to use its money and influence to build opposition to an upcoming vote that could pave the way for Macedonia to join Nato, a move Moscow opposes.

Mr Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Skopje that there is “no doubt” that Moscow has been funding pro-Russian groups to defeat the referendum on a name change later this month.

“They have transferred money, and they’re also conducting broader influence campaigns,” Mr Mattis said. “We ought to leave the Macedonian people to make up their own minds.”

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Macedonians will vote on September 30 whether to approve the name 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 does not want the alliance to expand to areas formerly under Moscow’s influence.

Mr Mattis, speaking after a meeting with Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, made no mention of Russia but announced that the US plans to expand its cybersecurity co-operation with Macedonia “to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens our democracies.”

Mr Zaev predicted that Macedonians will vote in favour of the name change and thus the move into Nato.

“There is no other alternative for the Republic of Macedonia than the integration into Nato and the EU,” he said.

Speaking later on Monday at another event, Mr Zaev said he had “no evidence for Russia’s influence” in Macedonia. He said Russia has no objections for Macedonia’s integration into the EU, but it’s “openly against our integration in Nato.”

Macedonia’s main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party repeated its position that “the agreement with Greece is the worst deal signed in the Macedonia’s history.”

A pro-Russian small opposition party, Unique Macedonia, strongly criticised Mr Mattis’ remarks on Moscow’s efforts to use money to influence the referendum.

Mr Mattis is the latest in a string of international leaders visiting Macedonia to voice support for the referendum, and he is the most senior US 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 is critical in order for the country to join Nato after years of waiting.

Mr Mattis said he and other Nato allies “say right up front in open press what we think.”

“We’re not passing money to people behind the scenes,” he said. “We’re not putting together parties that we control or try to control.”

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 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 them, complaining about the country’s name since Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s. Greece argues the name implies a territorial claim against the northern Greek region of Macedonia and its ancient heritage.

Nato leaders in July formally invited Macedonia to begin membership talks on the condition it would not be effective until the name change was implemented.

But there is widespread concern about Russia's impact on the vote.

“There is this influence campaign to try to buy off people and try to support pro-Russian organisations,” said Laura Cooper, the US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Russia and the region.

She could not give specifics about the pay-offs but said the US is aware of the financial support Moscow has given to pro-Russian groups working to undermine the referendum.

Evelyn Farkas, an expert on the region and who is a fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former Defence Department adviser, said Mr 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,” Ms Farkas said. “He can tell them this is their last chance.”

According to Ms Cooper, the US has given Macedonia about $5 million in security assistance annually since 1991, and the total US aid since has been about $750 million.

Mr Mattis also met with Macedonia President Gjorge Ivanov and Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska.

Mr Ivanov, in a statement, said Macedonia’s “strategic interest and the highest goal remains accession” to Nato and the European Union, which he said would contribute to prosperity for the region.

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 per cent, if most of the people vote “yes” it will give parliament and the government a mandate to proceed.

The agreement with Greece was signed in June and requires changes to the Macedonian constitution. The final step for Nato admission is ratification by Greece’s parliament, which would vote only after Macedonia completes all necessary procedures.