As reported by Censor.NET, Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev told BuzzFeed News that his government had received multiple reports that "Greek businessmen" who are "sympathetic to the Russian cause" paid Macedonians amounts ranging from $13,000 to $21,000 to "commit acts of violence" ahead of a crucial referendum later this year that will determine whether the Balkan state will be able to join the military alliance.
Zaev made the allegations during an interview in the Macedonian capital Skopje, having just returned from the NATO summit in Brussels last week, where Macedonia was officially invited to move toward NATO membership. During the summit, Zaev said he privately asked for help with the referendum from U.S. President Donald Trump, who is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday amid growing allegations that Russian agents tried to help his 2016 presidential campaign.
Zaev declined to name who was behind the payments, citing an ongoing investigation and the sensitivities of diplomatic relations surrounding the country’s bid for NATO membership. He said police learned of the payments after detaining several participants in violent protests outside parliament in June.
The biggest obstacle to Macedonia’s membership in NATO has been a long-running dispute with neighboring Greece, which has insisted the country change its name before joining international institutions because the name is also claimed by the Greek region of Macedonia.
Macedonians will be asked to approve the country's name change to Northern Macedonia in a referendum this fall, after which Greek leaders have promised to follow the name change with a vote to normalize relations. But both votes are far from certain since the deal is vehemently opposed by nationalists on both sides of the border.
Macedonia’s membership in NATO is fiercely opposed by Russia, which claims Macedonia is being "suck[ed] into NATO by force."
Just before NATO leaders signed the invitation for Macedonia to join NATO in Brussels last week, news broke that Greece had expelled Russian diplomats over allegations they attempted to bribe Greek officials to help kill the deal.
"The Russian representatives who were here, and also others from Moscow, [don’t] hide themselves that they are against our integration in NATO," Zaev 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."