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Mattis Accuses Russia of Meddling in Macedonian Referendum

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, center, and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev walk past an honor guard at the government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Sept. 17, 2018.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused Russia of attempting to influence an upcoming referendum in Macedonia that would open the way for the country to join NATO.

Mattis told reporters traveling with him to the Macedonian capital he had "no doubt" Moscow has been funding pro-Russian groups to defeat a referendum to change the Balkan country's name — settling a dispute with neighboring Greece, who has repeatedly blocked Macedonia's bid to join NATO.

"They have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns,'' Mattis said. "We ought to leave the Macedonian people to make up their own minds.''

Macedonians will vote September 30 on a referendum that would change the name of their country, following a historic agreement with Greece, who claims the name "Macedonia" for one of its regions.

Speaking after talks in Skojpe with Macedonia's president, Mattis made no mention of Russia specifically, but said the United States is helping the Balkan country bolster their cybersecurity.

Mattis joined other Western leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, in accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the former Soviet state's path to join NATO. In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats accused of supplying funds to groups protesting the name change. Russia called the expulsions unjustified.

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).

The referendum asks Macedonian voters, "Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?" A "Yes" vote would result in the country being named the "Republic of North Macedonia."