Following a three-day swing through the United States, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov says he will return home to lock in domestic support for the upcoming name referendum on which the small Balkan nation's EU-NATO integration depends.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up talks with Dimitrov by expressing strong support for the deal, signed this summer, in which Macedonia agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Greece and Macedonia have been feuding over who gets to use the name since Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Many Greeks say allowing the neighboring country to use the name insults Greek history and implies a claim on the Greek territory also known as Macedonia, a key province in Alexander the Great's ancient empire.
As a result, Greece has blocked Macedonian efforts to join the EU and NATO. Despite recognition by 137 countries, Macedonia is officially known at the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
"It's a great day for Macedonian diplomacy," Dimitrov said of his meeting with Pompeo, which he described as "very encouraging."
"We are now focused on our homework — we need to win a referendum to get our people to stand behind the name agreement that we have reached with our friends in Greece that unlocks the doors for the future," he said. "And here the support and friendship of our American partners is extremely important. So, I go back to Macedonia greatly encouraged."
September 30 referendum
Full implementation of the deal hinges on the name referendum that Macedonia's parliament set for September 30 in a measure approved with 68 votes in the 120-seat parliament. Opposition members boycotted the vote.
"The Secretary [of State] noted the referendum presented an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions on an issue of vital importance to the future of Macedonia," the State Department wrote.
Staunch U.S. support for passage of the referendum, which would secure the country's Euro-Atlantic future, draws from a longstanding U.S. interest in a politically stabilized Balkans, one of Europe's most impoverished and politically turbulent regions, one where U.S. lawmakers have called for substantially strengthened commitments to counter Russian efforts to influence elections and discourage NATO membership.
Dimitrov's meeting with Pompeo, his second with the top U.S. diplomat since November, underscored that point, he said.
"The main reason for [U.S. support for the referendum] lies in the fact that it will wrap up the long process of preparations for the country to join NATO, and that will bring stability in the region," Dimitrov told VOA's Macedonian Service.
His primary objective now, he said, is to make sure all Macedonians have the facts to make an informed decision at the polls next month.
"I am planning to devote maximum time to do just that," he said. "I will talk to people, go to markets and elsewhere, to explain the agreement with Greece, and to assure them that I understand their concerns. In these circumstances, there is no other alternative," he said.
The referendum question that parliament approved in July does not explicitly mention changing the country's name. It says only: "Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?"
Macedonia's nationalist opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, criticized the wording of the referendum question as manipulative.
Members of the opposition have not yet said whether they will call upon supporters to participate in the referendum, which would significantly increase the likelihood of achieving the 50 percent threshold required for ratification.
Some smaller political parties and nationalist groups who say the name change would compromise national identity have been campaigning to boycott the referendum.
This story originated in VOA's Macedonian Service