The president of Macedonia strongly urged voters Thursday to abstain from a weekend referendum on changing the country’s name to “North Macedonia” to clear its path toward NATO and European Union membership.

President Gjorge Ivanov’s comments at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, made hours before the end of campaigning for Sunday’s vote, deepened a rift with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s ruling Social Democrats party, which denounced them as “destructive.”

Ivanov, a conservative, said the proposed name change Zaev negotiated with the prime minister of Greece as part of a deal to end a decades-long dispute over the Macedonia name would be a “flagrant violation of sovereignty.”

Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“Do not persuade us to eat this poisonous fruit,” he said. “It is high time that the poisonous stem, together with its poisonous fruit, is removed.”

Greece objects to Macedonia’s current name, saying it implies a claim to territory in the Greek province with that name and to the heritage of the birthplace of revered ancient warrior Alexander the Great.

Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov arrives to address the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The agreement has divided public opinion in Macedonia and Greece, with opponents saying it offers too much to the other side.

Voter turnout in Sunday’s referendum is critical, as the result will be valid only if more than 50 percent of Macedonia’s 1.2 million registered voters participate. Polls indicate a “yes” vote would prevail, but turnout might fall short.

Western countries strongly back the deal, as Macedonia’s NATO accession would limit Russian influence in the Balkans. A series of western officials, including Germany’s chancellor, NATO’s chief and the U.S. defense secretary, visited Skopje in recent weeks to lobby for strong voter turnout.

A giant banner reading “For European Macedonia”, is set on a building in Skopje, Macedonia, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Macedonians will vote Sunday in a referendum on whether to change the country’s name to “North Macedonia”, a move which would allow the Balkan country to qualify for NATO membership and also pave its way toward the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

“Would they accept interference in their internal affairs, violation of sovereignty and political independence?” Ivanov said of the visiting officials. “Why, then, are we required to accept something that no one in the world would accept?”

Zaev has staked his political future on the “yes” vote prevailing. His party angrily criticized Ivanov’s comments.

A woman rides a bicycle next to a poster “For European Macedonia”, on a street in Skopje, Macedonia, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Macedonians will vote Sunday in a referendum on whether to change the country’s name to “North Macedonia”, a move which would allow the Balkan country to qualify for NATO membership and also pave its way toward the European Union. The banner also reads in Macedonian “It is time for decision” and “A secure future for our children”. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

“It is a shame that a person who performs the office of president should serve with untruths, manipulating the public,” a party statement issued Thursday said. “It is completely clear that the referendum is for Macedonia’s membership in the EU and NATO, with secured and strengthened Macedonian identity.”

Macedonia’s parliament has ratified the deal with Greece, although Ivanov refused to sign off on it.

People walk next to a banner reading “Come out for European Macedonia”, along a street in Skopje, Macedonia, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Macedonians will vote Sunday in a referendum on whether to change the country’s name to “North Macedonia”, a move which would allow the Balkan country to qualify for NATO membership and also pave its way toward the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

After the referendum, lawmakers must vote to amend the constitution to reflect the name change. After that, the last step to full implementation of the deal is its ratification by Greece’s parliament, which is sharply divided on the issue.

Macedonia gained nationhood after peacefully splitting from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

Police said a student protest against the name change planned for Thursday in Skopje was cancelled.

Source: The Associated Press