WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis plans to visit Macedonia this weekend to show support for the Balkan nation’s bid to join NATO.
Mattis told Pentagon’s reporters that Macedonia’s bid faces strong opposition from Russia, which could attempt to undermine Skopje’s bid to join NATO as well as its democratic government.
“I’m concerned about that,” Mattis said Tuesday. “I think that democracies should be left alone.”
Mattis said he hopes the trip will “make sure that they (Russia) know that we believe it should be our Macedonian friends charting their country’s future, and not outsiders.”
The concern about Russian interference stems, in part, with Moscow’s attempts to destabilize nearby Montenegro’s government as it debated its invitation to join NATO.
Officials in Montenegro, the U.S. and western Europe said a Russian plot aimed at having the Montenegro prime minister assassinated in 2016, followed by a coup, to thwart the country from joining NATO.
Montenegro and Macedonia were both republics in the former Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia, two other former Yugoslav republics, join Montenegro among the 29 NATO members.
Macedonia already supports NATO activities in Afghanistan and Kosovo, its neighbor to the north.
Before Russia’s objections, Macedonia’s quest to become a NATO member and a member of the European Union had been blocked for decades by Greece, its neighbor to the south.
Athens objected to the nation’s name — Macedonia — which it insisted is owned by Greece on historical grounds. Greece also charged the name suggested territorial desires toward the northern region of Greece, which has the same name.
In June the two nations reached an agreement where Macedonia will be called the Republic of North Macedonia and renounce any connection to the historical civilization of Macedonia, a forerunner of Greece.