ATHENS (AP) – Police in Athens braced for more protests Thursday as Parliament members prepared to vote on a landmark agreement with FYROM, and demonstrators took to the streets and the ancient Acropolis.
A parliamentary debate was extended until Friday to accommodate a large number of speakers before the vote to finalize plans by Greece’s neighbor to change its name to North Macedonia and further its bid to join NATO. Greece’s tourism minister, a prominent supporter of the agreement, said she had received multiple death threats.
About 1,500 police officers took up positions around Athens ahead of several planned demonstrations opposing Greece’s ratification of the agreement that would normalize relations between the two Balkan neighbors after decades of strain.
Early Thursday, protesters from the Greek Communist Party draped two giant banners opposing the deal over the walls of the ancient Acropolis. A Communist Party-backed union was planning a protest near the U.S. Embassy, while a separate rally was planned outside parliament Thursday evening to coincide with the parliamentary debate and vote.
A similar rally on Sunday by tens of thousands of protesters outside parliament turned violent, with demonstrators pelting riot police with Molotov cocktails, rocks, paint and metal bars. Police responded with heavy use of tear gas.
Opponents argue that the deal doesn’t end a potential territorial threat to Greece’s northern region, called Macedonia. Because of the dispute, Greece has been blocking for years its neighbor’s efforts to join NATO.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government needs support from up to six opposition lawmakers to get the required 151 votes in the 300-member parliament for the agreement to be ratified. He recently lost his parliamentary majority after his junior coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks party, pulled out of the government due to objections over the name deal.
Elena Kountoura, the tourism minister, said she had received death threats after refusing to join the party’s departure.
“I have received photos of dead women, threatening phone calls, threatening messages on my cell phone and on the internet,” she said, urging her political opponents to speak out against the threats. “If anything happens to my family or myself, the blame will lie not only with the perpetrators but also those who incite them.”
In northern Greece, hundreds of farmers and other local residents arrived in cars at Evzones, Greece’s main border crossing with FYROM, blocking traffic despite a heavy police presence. Authorities were diverting traffic to two other border crossings, which remained open. Trucks were still able to cross at Evzones, although long lines were developing.
“We came here to protest on the border, to try and shut it, in order for this betrayal not to pass,” said Thomas Karytidis, president of a local farmers’ union.
The town of Polykastro, the closest to the border on the Greek side, shut down all municipal services for two hours in a symbolic show of opposition, while residents and schools held a protest outside the town hall.
“Flags are flying at half-staff, the (church) bells were ringing mournfully because we don’t want this deal to go through,” said Mayor Christos Gountenoudis.
Polls show that at least two in three Greeks oppose the deal, with sentiment against the agreement particularly high in northern Greece where lawmakers have come under intense pressure to vote against it.
In an attack potentially linked to the agreement, late Wednesday arsonists tried to set fire to the home of a lawmaker with the governing Syriza party in the northern town of Yiannitsa. Nobody was injured, and the fire service said damage was minor.
The lawmaker, Theodora Tzakri, said her family had been at home at the time of the petrol bomb attack, which she blamed on far-right activists opposed to the deal with FYROM.
Costas Kantouris reported from Evzones, Greece. Nicholas Paphitis and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.
By DEREK GATOPOULOS and COSTAS KANTOURIS , Associated Press