Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in an interview Friday that “Greek businessmen” with pro-Russian ties paid thousands of dollars to FYROM citizens to “commit acts of violence” to prevent the Balkan country from joining NATO.
Zaev told BuzzFeed News that his administration has various reports that the “businessmen” gave his citizens payments ranging from $13,000-$21,000 to carry out violence ahead of a pivotal referendum later this year to determine whether FYROM should change its name to join the military alliance.
For about a quarter century, the country has shared tension with Greece over the name “Macedonia”, which also belongs to the northern Greek region of Macedonia — a historical province and important part of Ancient Greek history that has no direct connection with the modern citizens, who hail from a mixed Slavic heritage.
Athens and Skopje reached a deal on the name change in June when both sides agreed on “Republic of Northern Macedonia,” but it has since sparked widespread outrage from Greeks who oppose any usage of “Macedonia” in the name.
The long-running dispute has kept FYROM from joining major international organizations such as NATO and the European Union due to Greece’s veto power; however, alliance leaders during last week’s summit in Brussels, Belgium officially offered membership to the Eastern European nation.
Zaev’s claims regarding the “businessmen” come not only following the summit, but also just days after Greece’s expulsion of Russian diplomats in which the Greek government cited evidence that they had tried to influence protests against the Macedonia name agreement between Athens and Skopje.
The FYROM prime minister mentioned an ongoing investigation into the matter, but declined to name who was responsible for the alleged payments.
Zaev said police found out about the payments to protesters in June after arresting multiple participants during violent demonstrations outside the parliament, adding that Russian officials have not been shy about showing their opposition to FYROM joining NATO.
“The Russian representatives who were here, and also others from Moscow, [don’t] hide themselves that they are against our integration in NATO,” he said. “Part of them are connected with media, part of them… encourage the young people to protest in front of the parliament, to attack policemen… It’s very obvious.”
During a recent press briefing in Moscow, a spokeswoman from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized NATO’s membership invitation to FYROM, claiming that the small nation is being “suck[ed] into” the alliance “by force.”
Whether or not the country will be able to join NATO remains unclear due to a few complicating factors.
First, its fall referendum must win majority citizen approval of the name change.
Second, there must be a two-thirds majority to win parliamentary approval; however, FYROM’s President Gjorge Ivanov, who can veto the accord, said in June that he would not sign the landmark deal.
Furthermore, Ivanov has been backed by the nationalist opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, whose support the center-left government needs to win parliamentary approval in the first place.
Last but not least, Greece’s parliament must also approve the deal.
Greek leaders have pledged to normalize relations if the Athens-Skopje agreement succeeds, but the deal faces fierce opposition from nationalists on both sides of the border.
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