German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, right, arrive for a news conference following their talks at the government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. German chancellor Angela Merkel is a third western leader this week who has urged Macedonians to back massively the referendum on a deal with neighboring Greece aimed at ending a decades-old name dispute. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Western leaders line up to visit Macedonia before referendum

September 12, 2018 - 2:57 pm

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Western leaders were preparing to visit Macedonia ahead of a referendum on changing the country's name and gaining fast-track NATO membership despite strong Russian opposition.

Federica Mogherini, the top European Union official for foreign affairs, is expected to visit the capital of Skopje on Thursday.

Wess Mitchell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, will also visit Thursday, while U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis plans a stop over the weekend.

If voters back changing the country's name to "North Macedonia" in the Sept. 30 referendum, Greece would drop its veto over it joining NATO.

Greece has worried that its neighbor's name could imply a claim to territory and the ancient heritage of its own region of Macedonia.

Macedonia's government led by center-left Prime Minister Zoran Zaev launched its referendum campaign earlier this week, urging people to support the new name.

The effort is being vocally supported by Western governments: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all traveled to Skopje last week to urge Macedonian voters to back the deal.

At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis told reporters that he was concerned about alleged acts of "mischief" by Russia to try and block the country's path to NATO membership.

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

On Wednesday, Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci buoyed the "yes" campaign at a meeting with Zaev.

"From my humble position, I call on all people in Macedonia to participate in the referendum and to say 'yes.' I think this is an historic moment that needs to be seized," Thaci told reporters.

Roughly a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million citizens is ethnic Albanian.

Macedonia's conservative opposition vehemently opposes the agreement with Greece, describing it as a national humiliation.

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AP Writer Derek Gatopoulos contributed from Athens, Greece