As Greece expelled two Russian diplomats accused of trying to bribe groups to undercut the anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA’s deal to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) be called North Macedonia, FYROM’s Premier Zoran Zaev said Greek businesses aligned with Russia want to block a referendum in his country seeking to approve the agreement.
Speaking to the news site BuzzFeed, Zaev accused Greek businessmen “sympathetic to the Russian cause” of paying large sums of money to his FYROM citizens to commit acts of violence ahead of the referendum.
He said his government received a series of reports that people were paid amounts ranging from $13,000-$21,000 without revealing the source or those he said were financing the insurrection.
He also said that he asked, in private, for help with the referendum from US President Donald Trump at last week’s NATO summit, ahead of the American leader’s meeting in Helsinki on July 16 with Russian President Vladimir Putin without explaining what he wanted.
All that came after Greece said it booted the two Russian diplomats and kept two others out of the country after “irrefutable” evidence suggested they tried to bribe officials, clergymen and far-right groups to oppose the deal.
The agreement to give away the name of the abutting ancient Greek province of Macedonia also saw Tsipras agree to lift Greek vetoes on FYROM beginning European Union entry talks and also getting into NATO.
United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, who failed for two decades to find a solution, helped broker the deal, resuming talks this year after a three-year break, amid speculation it was part of US pressure to get FYROM into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
“The Russian representatives who were here, and also others from Moscow, (don’t) hide themselves that they are against our integration in NATO,” Zaev told BuzzFeed.
In an interview with Russia’s RT network, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied Greece’s claims and said Tsipras – a former Communist Youth leader who had cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin – was aligning himself with the US and the West and claimed that America was behind Greece’s booting of the Russian diplomats.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said the US was not pulling any strings and that the matter is closed despite Russian warnings there would be reprisals. “We took the measures we needed to take and at the moment we consider the matter finished,” he said.
The European Union’s Enlargement Commissioner went to FYROM on July 17 to formally announce the start of preparations for the Balkan country to open accession talks with the bloc next year.
Johannes Hahn congratulated FYROM for recently signing a deal with Greece resolving a decades-old dispute over the country’s name. He urged the public to vote in favor of the deal after FYROM’s Parliament twice ratified the agreement, the second time to override a refusal by the country’s President Gjorge Ivanov to sign.
Once that is done, Zaev said the referendum will be held in the autumn, likely pushing back until early next year when Greece’s lawmakers will take up a vote and as Tsipras’ junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) said they are opposed and will vote against it, requiring Tsipras to find allies among rival parties.
The EU’s member states agreed last month to open membership talks with Albania and FYROM next year if the two nations continue with reform progress. Macedonia must deliver results in overhauling its judiciary, fighting corruption and media freedom.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)