US Defence Secretary Mattis visits Macedonia, condemns Russian Federation

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev center takes a part in a march holding a banner that reads

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev center takes a part in a march holding a banner that reads"Come out for European Macedonia, in downtown Skopje Macedonia Sunday Sept. 16 2018. Thousands of people marched in downtown of capital Skopje Sunday

Mattis condemned Russia's alleged attempts to use its money in order to reinforce the opposition to the referendum, which could pave the way for Macedonia's North Atlantic Treaty Organisation membership.

"They have transferred money and they're also conducting broader influence campaigns", Mattis said.

Slated for September 30, the vote will ask Macedonians whether they want to change the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia, in a move which could open the door to NATO and European Union membership.

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

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".

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was on an official visit to Macedonia, met on Monday with Macedonian leaders and officials, including President Gjorge Ivanov.

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

The march was part of the campaign of the "Together for European Macedonia" coalition of the governing parties and NGOs that support the referendum.

In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and blocked two others from entering over suspicions they attempted to undermine the deal between Skopje and Athens.

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Moscow denounced the expulsions as unjustified and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.

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.

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

"There is this influence campaign to try to buy off people and try to support pro-Russian organizations", said Laura Cooper, the USA deputy assistant defence secretary for Russia and the region.

Ivanov thanked the U.S. Defence Secretary for the U.S. support to Macedonia, which aims to promote the defense and security reforms both in terms of financial and technical support through participation in joint training, exercises and missions.

"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.

"We're just looking at how do they shape their own future... not shaped by someone else", Mattis told a small group of reporters en route to Skopje.

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

Greek businessmen with close ties to Moscow have bribed citizens in Skopje to "commit acts of violence" ahead of the referendum on the name deal with Athens, Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), said on Monday (16 July).

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