State Department official backs Macedonian referendum

A U.S. State Department official offered "heartfelt and profound" support to Macedonia Thursday ahead of a key referendum on changing its name that could clear the way for the former Yugoslav republic's NATO accession.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell — the latest in a line of Western officials visiting Skopje to back the process — said the final decision in the Sept. 30 referendum lies with Macedonians.

"But America also has a stake in the western Balkans, of seeing stability and prosperity in a very import region," Mitchell added after talks with Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov in Skopje.

Western governments are particularly keen to get the tiny landlocked country into NATO, as that would expand the alliance's presence in the Balkans and diminish Russian influence.

European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini will be also visiting Skopje later Thursday, while U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected on Monday.

The referendum will seek approval of a June agreement with Greece to rename Macedonia "North Macedonia." That would end a bitter 27-year dispute between the two Balkan neighbors, and end Greek objections to the country joining NATO and the EU.

Greece argues that Macedonia's current name implies claims on its own adjoining province of Macedonia, and on ancient Greek culture. Macedonia denies that.

Macedonia's center-left prime minister, Zoran Zaev, spoke at the European Parliament earlier Thursday and said his country is ready to grasp its "historic moment" and change its name.

At a Pentagon briefing earlier this week, Defense Secretary Mattis told reporters he was concerned about alleged acts of "mischief" by Russia to try to block Macedonia's path to NATO membership.

Russia denies claims of interference, but openly opposes NATO expansion eastward.