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US praises 'positive' result in Macedonia NATO vote, despite low turnout

US praises 'positive' result in Macedonia NATO vote, despite low turnout
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U.S. officials are praising the results of a referendum that would allow Macedonia to join NATO, despite low voter turnout putting the bid in limbo.

About 91 percent of Macedonian voters backed a referendum Sunday that would allow the country to join NATO and the European Union.

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But turnout was only about 37 percent. Opponents, who had called for a boycott of the vote, are framing the results as a clear failure because Macedonia’s constitution requires at least 50 percent turnout for binding resolutions to be valid.

But the resolution was considered “consultative,” not binding. As such, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev vowed to push forward with a vote in parliament to change Macedonia’s name, part of a deal it's made to join the organizations.

“The United States welcomes the positive results of Macedonia’s consultative referendum in which the citizens of Macedonia accepted the Prespa Agreement between Macedonia and Greece,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement Monday. “We strongly support implementing this agreement and stand by the government in Skopje as they ultimately determine their country’s fate during this historical moment.”

Under an agreement with Greece, Macedonia has to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in order for Greece to lift its veto on its neighbor joining NATO and the EU. Greece believes the name Macedonia implies territorial control of a northern Greek region of the same name.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration Overnight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising MORE traveled to Macedonia last month to show U.S. support for the country’s NATO bid. There, he accused Russia of attempting to interfere in the election, saying there was “no doubt” Moscow was funding opposition to the name change.

“We do not want to see Russia doing there what they've tried to do in so many other countries,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him, in an apparent reference to Kremlin interference in U.S. and other elections.

Russia has denied meddling in the Macedonian referendum. But it opposes NATO expansion, and its ambassador in Macedonia has said the country could become “a legitimate target” if relations between NATO and Moscow continue to fall apart.

After the vote, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia is “observing closely and of course think that all the processes should remain within the framework of the law,” according to Reuters.

In its Monday statement, the Pentagon said the United States “remains unwavering” in its commitment to the “strong bilateral defense relationship” with Macedonia.

“We support our Macedonian friends as they chart their own course to achieve peace and prosperity for their people,” White said.

In a separate statement, the State Department said it “welcomes the results” of the referendum where “citizens expressed their support for NATO and European Union membership,” without mentioning the low turnout.

“As Macedonia’s parliament now begins deliberation on constitutional changes, we urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Sunday night.

A joint statement from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and EU President Donald Tusk likewise emphasized the “overwhelming majority of those voting” without mentioning the low turnout.

“It is now in the hands of politicians in Skopje to decide on the way forward,” they said. “The decisions they take in the next days and weeks will determine the fate of their country and their people for many generations to come. We encourage them to seize this historic opportunity.”