Vladimir Putin has weighed into the row over Macedonia’s name-change, accusing the US and its allies of destabilising the Balkans by “asserting their dominant role” in the region.
The Russian president criticised what he described as deliberate efforts to increase western influence in a part of the world Moscow has long regarded as falling within its own orbit.
“The policy of the United States and some other western nations in the Balkans, who seek to assert their dominance in the region, has been a serious destabilising factor,” he was quoting as telling Serbia’s Večernje Novosti and Politika newspapers, according to remarks released by the Kremlin. “This will eventually increase mistrust and tension in Europe, rather than improve stability.”
Putin, who made the comments before a visit to Belgrade, Moscow’s staunchest regional ally, deplored Nato’s “destructive” policy of expansion in the historically volatile Balkan peninsula. “We have repeatedly said that we see Nato expansion as a relic of the cold war, an ill-informed and destructive military and political strategy,” he told the papers.
Last week, Macedonian MPs endorsed a landmark accord that will rename the strategic Balkan nation the Republic of North Macedoniain a move that now opens the way to Nato membership.
The name-change deal, reached after almost 30 years of dispute with Greece, is expected to be ratified by lawmakers in Athens within days following a vote of confidence in the Greek parliament at midnight on Wednesday.
The prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, called the vote after the nationalist Independent Greeks party, the junior partner in his leftist-led coalition, pulled out of the government in protest over the agreement.
The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, in Athens, Greece. Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA
Tsipras is expected to win the motion, with officials telling the Guardian he would probably bring the Macedonia name-change accord to parliament immediately after.
Athens has blocked Skopje’s entry to Nato and the EU in opposition to a name it has long argued implied territorial ambitions against Greece’s own province of Macedonia.
Putin, who begins his visit to Belgrade on Thursday, singled out Montenegro, saying its decision to join the western alliance in April 2017 had resulted in the country “now going through a period of political instability”.
On Wednesday, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also voiced concerns over perceived western meddling in the Balkans, saying Moscow had credible grounds to question the legitimacy of the process by which Macedonia had changed its name.
The Macedonian flag flies. Photograph: simon leigh/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
Earlier, the Russian foreign ministry had described the deal, known as the Prespes accord, as a western plot to draw the tiny state into Nato in comments that elicited a furious response from Athens. Skopje’s foreign ministry also responded saying: “The Prespes agreement does not interfere with the interests of third countries.”
In stark contrast to Putin’s claims, Moscow has been accused by the west of rampant meddling in the region, including supporting an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 to thwart it becoming the alliance’s 29th member.
Similar assertions of Russian interference in Macedonia have also been made by the US and EU, with both insisting that Moscow has waged a concerted campaign to stop the ex-Yugoslav republic joining Nato.
Last year, the US then defence secretary James Mattis accused Russia of using money and influence to create opposition to changing the country’s name in a landmark referendum. Washington, he said, had decided to step up cooperation with Macedonia “to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens both our democracies”.