SKOPJE -- During a visit to North Macedonia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the Western military alliance is "ready to welcome" the Balkan country as its 30th member.
NATO membership will bring "greater security and prosperity for all the people of North Macedonia," Stoltenberg said after meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Skopje on June 3, the last day of his two-day visit to the capital.
He is accompanied by 29 ambassadors to NATO's top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, which held a joint meeting with members of the government to discuss progress in accession preparations and reforms.
In February, Skopje signed a protocol that could see the former Yugoslav republic become the alliance's next member if the move is ratified by all 29 NATO allies.
The signing was made possible after Skopje and Athens settled a decades-old name dispute through a compromise that changed Macedonia's moniker to the Republic of North Macedonia, thus allaying Greek fears of any claim to its region of Macedonia.
Fourteen NATO members have ratified the Accession Protocol. North Macedonia can join once the remaining 15 members also do so.
Speaking alongside Stoltenberg, Zaev said that he expected the ratification process to be finalized by the end of October.
The NATO chief praised the courage and determination shown by Skopje and Athens to resolve their dispute, and urged North Macedonia to continue reforms, including on rule of law and in the defense and security sectors.
"Continuing the pace of reforms is important, as you prepare for full membership. We will continue to support you on this path," Stoltenberg said.
North Macedonia plans to raise defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024 from the current 1 percent.
Three other former Yugoslav republics -- Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro -- have already joined NATO, as have other countries in the Balkans including Albania and Bulgaria.
Russia has opposed the Western military alliance's expansion in Balkans, claiming that it is undermining security in the region.