By Daria Sito-Sucic
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The United States expects Macedonia to join NATO in mid-2020 by which time its name change deal with Greece should be fully implemented despite Russian efforts to undermine it, the top U.S. official for the Western Balkans said on Tuesday.gi
Skopje's agreement to change the country name to Republic of North Macedonia, ending perceptions that it held territorial claims to the Greek province of Macedonia, lifted a big obstacle to Macedonia joining NATO and the European Union, a move the West believes would help stem Russian influence in the region.
"I don't think there is any reason not to believe that North Macedonia could become the 30th member of NATO as early as 18 months from now," Matthew Palmer, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told Reuters in an interview in Bosnia's capital Sarajevo.
"That is an entirely realistic target date," he said, praising the breakthrough agreement in June between Greece and Macedonia as the "most significant positive development" in efforts by Western Balkans states to achieve EU and NATO ties.
He noted that NATO had already invited Macedonia to join the alliance and the process could move quickly upon full implementation of the name change accord, which must still be ratified by the Macedonian and Greek parliaments.
Still, Palmer voiced concern about the "malign influence" of Russia both in Macedonia and in other countries of the Western Balkans - Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo.
He accused Russia of trying to undermine governments and institutions in an effort to halt the region's progress towards EU and NATO integration. Moscow has denied such accusations, accusing the West in turn of meddling in the Western Balkans.
"It's not up to Russia to decide what Macedonia may or may not do in terms of how they associate themselves with European and Euro-Atlantic institutions," Palmer said, referring to Russian criticism of the Macedonian government.
"Efforts to undermine the expressed will of the Macedonian public are destabilising and damaging to the regional peace and security," he added.
Palmer said the United States supported dialogue between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which obtained independence after a 1998-99 war, and wanted them to return to negotiations.
"Agreement between Belgrade and Pristina would be a great step forward after (Macedonia's name change deal)," he said, adding that Washington opposed the 100 percent tariffs imposed last month by Kosovo on Serbian and Bosnian goods.
Kosovo has said it will retain the tariffs until Belgrade recognises it as an independent state.
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)