ATHENS – A protest against a deal the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA made to change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – giving away the name of an ancient abutting Greek province – grew violent, leading police to fire tear gas and demonstrators and rival parties to complain it was excessive.
The tear gas was fired as a group tried to climb stairs leading up to the patio outside Parliament in Syntagma Square, where they ran into a squadron of riot police in a furious battle authorities blamed on the ultra-extreme right Golden Dawn.
A statement from Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ office blamed “extremist elements and members of Golden Dawn” – an extreme-right, anti-immigrant party – for the clashes on Jan. 20, just before Parliament is to take up the deal that now seems set to pass.
“In our democracy, citizens’ free expression is an inalienable right, even for those who want to abolish democracy … It is also the duty and obligation of those of us who do believe not to allow them. Let’s isolate and condemn them,” the statement said.
Police said in a statement that officers had been attacked by “organized groups of individuals with special ferocity, (using) rocks, iron bars, wooden clubs, firebombs, etc. … Police forces acted according to operational plans and orders, showed restraint and professionalism and, using the appropriate methods, repelled the attacks.”
Police sources, according to a dispatch circulated by the state-run news agency, also blamed right-wing supporters for the disturbances, saying it was not possible for “Antifa” protesters to reach the area, the business newspaper Naftemporiki said.
A counter-demonstration was held a few blocks away for self-styled anarchists and anti-state protesters against the much larger rally and police referred to “organized groups” as behind the disturbances.
Main opposition New Democracy (ND) MP Adonis Georgiadis tweeted that, “The release of chemicals (tear gas) into a square with such a high density of people is a real provocation. They (police) intentionally allowed left 50 masked (troublemakers) get close to them in order to have a reason to use chemicals. The SYRIZA government showed its true anti-democratic face. Shame!”
Former Parliament Speaker and one-time SYRIZA MPc Zoe Konstantopoulou, who quit the government and has taunted Tsipras for betraying his alleged principles tweeted:
“Shame. Chemicals and enforcement against a peaceful demonstration by people of all ages. Exactly what they did in 2011 with the indignados (anti-austerity protesters at the time)” which SYRIZA had condemned.
A government minister from SYRIZA earlier this month condemned the use of tear gas against protesting teachers but police used it again to break up a demonstration against visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well.
HOW MANY WERE THERE?
Protest organizers said they hoped to attract more than 600,000 people. Police released an official estimate of 60,000 before the leaders of the demonstration said it was 150,000 although Syntagma Square was not filled as it had been during a similar protest last year.
Tempers are running high with surveys showing 65 percent of Greeks are opposed to the deal Tsipras made to see FYROM called North Macedonia, its citizens to be called Macedonians, with a Macedonian language, culture and identity and lift Greek vetoes keeping the country out of NATO and opening European Union accession talks.
At least 25 police officers were injured and seven people arrested, police said with videos and TV coverage showing demonstrators throwing rocks, flares, , paint and other objects at riot police who responded with repeated volleys of tear gas.
Some protesters jumped over a fence and tried to scale the steps, but officers chased them back down. One man draped in a Greek flag attacked police with a large stick, while others swung big flags on wooden poles and struck officers.
Some protesters also attacked photographers, injuring four, one of whom was hospitalized and also had his camera stolen, said Kathimerini.
Among the people who addressed the protest were former conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, a member of the Mount Athos monastic community and a Greek-American former politician, Chris Spirou, once a member of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives who now heads the Hellenic American Union.
In northern Greece, farmers temporarily blocked the highway leading to the Macedonian border in solidarity. It later reopened. About 300 anarchists staged a counter-demonstration. Police erected barriers to prevent clashes. After their otherwise peaceful rally, anarchists burned a car with official license plates, media reports said.
IT’S ALL OVER
While organizers had said about 3,000 buses would travel from northern Greece alone, police said that a total of 327 arrived with Greeks apparently accepting the agreement will pass after reports that SYRIZA, with 145 votes and needing six more in the 300-member border, could get as many as eight from former rival lawmakers and an Independent.