US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to Macedonia this weekend as Macedonians prepare to vote on a referendum at the end of the month. If passed, it would change the name of the country from Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, and open the door to EU and NATO membership for the Balkan nation. Macedonia, and Greece have been locked in a dispute over the former’s name for decades. In June, the two nations reached an agreement to settle the matter. The referendum set for 30 September will determine if Macedonian voters will support the measure or not. Mattis is the latest US official to visit Macedonia. A number of politicians and government officials from the US, and European nations have been visited in recent weeks, encouraging Macedonians to approve the referendum. Nationalists in Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the name change. Last weekend riots broke out in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as nationalist groups gathered there and demonstrated.
Mattis is concerned about ‘the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia.’ Russia is less than pleased about Macedonia’s pivot to the West, viewing the referendum as an attempt by NATO and the US to interfere in an area that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence. Over the summer, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing them of bribing an unnamed official to undermine the deal that was agreed to between Skopje and Athens. Russia’s ambassador in Macedonia has recently warned that the country could become a legitimate target if relations between the NATO and Russia do not improve. In July, Macedonia was formally invited to begin the process towards NATO membership. Moscow has opposed the move and this opposition has helped bring about concerns of Soviet mischief aimed at influencing voters in the days leading up to the referendum.