SKOPJE -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance is "ready to welcome" Macedonia as its 30th member once Skopje finalizes an agreement with Athens to change the former Yugoslav republic's name.
Stoltenberg was speaking on a September 6 during a visit to Macedonia aimed at expressing support for the "yes" campaign in a national referendum set for September 30.
"NATO's door is open, but only the people of this country can decide to walk through it. So, your future is in your hands. We wait for you in NATO," he said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
The Macedonian and Greek foreign ministers signed a deal on June 17 to rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia -- North Macedonia for short -- and resolve a 27-year dispute between Skopje and Athens.
Macedonian lawmakers later voted in favor of the bill to ratify the agreement, which paves the way for talks on Macedonian membership in both NATO and the European Union.
But hurdles remain for the deal to come into effect, including the support of Macedonian voters in the upcoming referendum.
'Taking This Country Forward'
Western leaders have also backed Zaev's "yes" campaign ahead of the referendum, in which Macedonians will be asked, "Are you in favor of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?"
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is due to visit Skopje on September 7 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel the following day.
In Skopje, Stoltenberg also congratulated Zaev on Macedonia's reforms.
"I congratulate you on the progress you made, taking this country forward," the NATO chief said. "The economy is peaking up and the reforms are being implemented, including on the rule of law, security and intelligence, and the defense sector."
He also called on the Macedonian prime minister to continue with reforms, saying, "This will make you safer, stronger, and even better able to work side by side with NATO allies."
The name dispute between Skopje and Athens dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.
Neighboring Greece has objected to the name Macedonia, saying it implies territorial claims on the northern Greek region with the same name.
Because of Greek objections, Macedonia was admitted to the UN under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).