Pompeo to combat Russian influence on Balkans trip

New York (AFP) –


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will seek to counter Russian influence during his visit next week to Montenegro and North Macedonia, the latest and the next members of NATO, officials said Friday.

Pompeo will also visit Greece and begin his trip on October 1 in Italy, where he will have an audience with Pope Francis.

Pompeo, an evangelical Protestant, will address a Vatican forum on development partnerships with faith organizations. The first Italian-American secretary of state, he will also visit his ancestral home of Abruzzo.

On visits October 4 to both Montenegro and North Macedonia, "we will talk about Russian efforts to sow discord there," a senior US official said in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

"It's up to these sovereign and independent states and their people to make their decisions on the direction they want to go, and their decision to pursue NATO membership, I think, has been important for them," the official said.

The official pointed to a purported 2016 coup plot in Montenegro that aimed to halt the former Yugoslav republic's plans to join NATO.

Montenegro joined the Western alliance a year later and a court has handed jail sentences to opposition politicians and, in absentia, alleged Russian spies.

The US official said that Russia had also sought to stir up opposition to the Prespa agreement that paved the way for North Macedonia's imminent membership in NATO.

Under last year's deal, the former Yugoslav republic changed its name from "Macedonia."

Greece, whose northern region is called Macedonia, said its Slavic neighbors were appropriating the Hellenic heritage of Alexander the Great and blocked their entrance into NATO.

Pompeo will celebrate the deal, which was "an incredible step that demonstrated leadership and courage on the part of the leaders in North Macedonia and Greece," the official said.

But the Greek prime minister who negotiated it, leftist Alexis Tsipras, lost elections in July in significant part due to a nationalist backlash against the agreement.

His successor, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said in New York that he still had objections to parts of the deal but that he would honor it as a ratified international agreement.

Pompeo's trip comes a year after President Donald Trump shook up Montenegro by questioning whether it was worth defending the small country under NATO.