September 6, 2018 / 5:27 PM / 19 days ago

We are ready to welcome you, NATO's Stoltenberg tells Macedonia

SKOPJE (Reuters) - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Macedonians on Thursday to vote in a referendum to embrace a deal on its name with neighboring Greece and join the defense alliance.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Macedonian Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska attend the Macedonian Army special forces presentation at the army barracks in Skopje, Macedonia, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

“We are ready to welcome your country as NATO’s 30th member,” he said after meeting Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev shake hands after a news conference in Skopje, Macedonia, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Macedonia has set Sept. 30 for the referendum on NATO and European Union membership bids and on its agreement with Greece on the country’s name.

In June, NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but to finalize membership talks it will have to adopt constitutional changes.

“This is a historic opportunity,” Stoltenberg said. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to join the international community, to become a member of NATO, to become a member of the EU, but for this you have to agree with the name agreement.”

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Greece refused to accept the Balkan country’s name, saying it implied territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia and amounted to an appropriation of its ancient civilization. It had blocked the country’s EU and NATO membership bids.

Zaev’s government, elected in 2017, pushed for an agreement with Greece to solve the name dispute and the two sides have agreed on the name Republic of North Macedonia.

Nationalists, including President Gjorge Ivanov, oppose the deal saying it is against the constitution.

“I believe that the real place for Macedonia is in the European Union and NATO. I’ll continue to support our strategic goals. But, EU and NATO cannot be an alibi for a bad deal,” Ivanov said in a statement after meeting Stoltenberg.

Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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