For many voters angry with Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, it wasn’t his reneging on anti-austerity promises that was end for them. Nor growing lawlessness in Athens, ranting ministers, blocking foreign investors or cozying up to the United States after denouncing America.
It was his deal giving away the name of the ancient Greek province of Macedonia, changing the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to North Macedonia, opposed by two-thirds of Greeks.
He persisted anyway, earning himself and North Macedonia Premier Zoran Zaev a Nobel Peace Prize nomination but at the cost of the Greek leader on a course to lose badly in July 7 snap elections he called, trailing far behind the major opposition New Democracy Conservatives.
The so-called Prespes Agreement, named after the lake bordering the countries where it was signed did Tsipras in, said France 24 in a report on the coming elections in which New Democracy is holding leads up to 9 percent.
“After the crisis, poverty, penury and unemployment, it was the last straw,” Christos Biglikoudis, a resident of Pella in northern Greece told the news agency.
“The government betrayed us. They’re selling out our homeland,” said the 39-year-old laborer, standing in front of the cafe he was forced to shut down because of the economic crisis.
Behind him, on the town square, stood a statue of Alexander the Great, the great conqueror to Greeks in his homeland, an area that had also been claimed by FYROM, along with Greece’s military hero before backing off under the deal.
Alexander was born in Pella, once the capital of the ancient Macedonian kingdom and just across the border from North Macedonia. What was ancient Macedonia today also includes parts of North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
But to many in northern Greece, Macedonia is just Greek.
“People here are very angry. I cannot understand how people voted for SYRIZA,” said Biglikoudis. The dissatisfaction was shown in May 26 elections for Greek municipalities and the European Parliament, won big by New Democracy candidates, leading Tsipras to call the snap polls.
In that campaign, Syriza lost voters across Macedonia, in some areas falling behind New Democracy by as many as 20 points, a killer for Tsipras and SYRIZA even as he tried to persuade Macedonian residents giving away the name was good business for them – but as North Macedonia companies call their products Macedonian.
New Democracy took all but two of Greece’s regions in local elections in a runoff a week after the May 26 elections and the rout was on.
Tsipras himself admitted earlier that the Prespes Agreement was “damaging,” but as an anti-nationalist who even said the stolen Parthenon Marbles belong the world and not Greece he went ahead anyway in the face of massive demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki, the seat of ancient Macedonia.
“There was political cost … there were repercussions nationwide,” he told state TV ERT in May.
Nikos Marantzidis, a pollster and professor of Balkan Studies at the University of Macedonia, told France 24 that the Prespes Agreement gave New Democracy a sorely needed “psychological and moral boost” after years on the defensive.
Ironically, it was then-Premier Constantinos Mitsotakis, father of current New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis who is poised to be Prime Minister, who agreed to let the new country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 to take the name of Macedonia in the acronym of FYROM, that was supposed to be a temporary arrangement.
But after successive FYROM goverments began claiming Greek lands, culture, history, identity and heroes like Alexander, Greece used a veto to keep its neighbor out of NATO and beginning European Union accession hopes, both lifted as well by Tsipras.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis has vowed to revisit the deal and even halt North Macedonia’s EU hopes without some changes, such as preventing North Macedonia companies from calling their goods and foodstuffs as Macedonian.
The fury against Tsipras and SYRIZA was unbridled and ferocious, made worse as he stood up for the deal and downplayed the opposition.
“They should be hanged,” Yiannis, a 70-year-old pensioner told France 24 of SYRIZA and its members and Cabinet. “Someone will be found to carry this out, they will not get away.”
Another beneficiary of the deal was the new Greek Solution (Elliniki Lysi) party, an ultra-nationalist, pro-Russia, super-religious group that’s on a course to get into Parliament and replace Tsipras’ former coalition partner, the tiny, pro-austerity, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) as the flag wavers for Greece.
ANEL leader Panos Kammenos, a former defense minister for Tsipras, pulled his party out of the government over the name deal but hadn’t tried to use his leverage during the negotiations to do so, bringing him down to a 0.8 percent showing in May 26 elections, and deciding to not even run on July 7, just giving up.