ATHENS – Here in the heart of the capital, on the spot outside Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where, in February 100,000 demonstrators stood and screamed and cajoled and waved Greek flags like signals to overhead planes looking for them to protest the Greek government’s plan to give away the name Macedonia forever to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), they were gone, and so was the outrage.
On this warm spring night, Syntagma Square was full of people going about their business, a few young people talking about going to see the movie Tully, a skateboarder who braved the jarring ride down the marble steps that began on the busy street above crashed and fell to the pavement to no one’s attention, so busy were they on their cell phones.
“I don’t care what happens, I don’t believe there should be any borders,” Theodoros Papanicolaou, 23, told The National Herald.
“I love my country but I don’t know the actual history of Macedonia and FYROM although Macedonia is Greek,” he said, but without any of the fury that on the same spot protesters spit at anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras.
He ignored the February protest as well as one earlier in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city and a major port that FYROM, since forming in 1992 during the collapse of Yugoslavia, has claimed as its own, along with the real Macedonia abutting Greece’s northern neighbor.
While the protests roared in Pella – the birthplace of Alexander the Great, the Greek hero FYROM also claimed – and in Macedonia, Pella, Kavala, Drama, Serres, Kilkis, Polykastro, Lagada, Nea Moudania, Edessa, Florina, Kastoria, Kozani, Ptolemaida, Katerini, Veria and Siatista, Larissa, Thiva, Ioannina, Rhodes, Hania, Corfu and Halkida, here the talk in the air was of which island to visit, which cafe to go to, and not ancient, or Modern, history.
“It’s just a name, for me people are all the same,” Clara Gotzai, 18, a student at the University of Athens said as she sat at the top of the marble stairs surveying the square full of people below where the buzz was not of the FYROM talks.
With her was fellow student Angelos Pritsis, 20, who said, “It’s not that I don’t care about my country but those people who live there, if they want to be called Macedonia or FYROM it is up to them.”
The battle’s been raging since a New Democracy government 26 years earlier allowed FYROM to temporarily use the name Macedonia but the irredentist claims on Greek lands over the years caused a feud and led Greece to veto FYROM’s hopes of getting into NATO and the European Union, bars that Tsipras wants to lift as he has sought ways to restore his popularity that plummeted after he reneged on anti-austerity promises.
Curiously, he is sticking to his guns and trying to work out the giveaway with FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev amid speculation that UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who has failed for two decades to broker a solution resumed talks this year after a three-year break because the US wants to get another country into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Tsipras reneged on vows to take Greece out of NATO but now is eager to help the alliance and has pressed on despite surveys showing 68 percent of Greeks oppose letting FYROM use the word Macedonia in a new composite, the favorites on the table being Northern, Upper or New.
NOT GIVING UP
Under the brassy stare of an equestrian Alexander the Great statue, 3,000 people gathered in Pella to demand Tsipras take a tougher stance with FYROM with word growing a deal is at hand and that he won’t.
The peaceful rally in the northern village of Pella was the best attended of the protests organized in provincial towns across Greece by hardliners opposing any use of the name Macedonia by the small republic to the north.
Demonstrators take part in a rally during a rally in Pella, northern Greece, on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Thousands of protesters gather near the birthplace of Alexander the Great in northern Greece to demand that the Greek government takes a tough stance with Macedonia over the latter country’s name. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Alexander was born in the 4th century B.C. and ruled the ancient kingdom of Macedon, most of which later became the Greek province of Macedonia. Since FYROM the country gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Greek government has insisted the name implies a territorial claim on its province.
“Respect history, respect Greece,” read a banner at the rally, about a mile from the ruins of ancient Pella where Alexander was born. Another sign proclaimed, “You are born a Macedonian, you don’t become one.”
Protester Eugenia Sarrigiannidou said she hopes the protest will harden Greece’s official position in the negotiations. “I don’t think the negotiations are finished, because they can be affected by developments — such as our reactions,” she said.
Rally organizers reject any inclusion of the word Macedonia, and want any agreement to be put to a referendum in Greece — as FYROM’s government has promised to do but which Tsipras has not. His own junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos also are opposed.
Demonstrators wave Greek flags during a rally in Pella, northern Greece, on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Thousands of protesters gather near the birthplace of Alexander the Great in northern Greece to demand that the Greek government takes a tough stance with Macedonia over the latter country’s name. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
That’s all so much politics to the people on the streets, where the demonstrators had the so-so backing of the Church of Greece which is opposed to the name giveaway but said it’s up to the government to decide, washing its hands of the decision.
Teacher Vangelis Voskidis, 62, said attending the rally was “the least we can do for our country.”
“I believe there is only one Macedonia, which is Greek,” he said. “It is our duty to exert pressure so that the name Macedonia is not given to our neighbor.”
They had at least one supporter in Syntagma. Artemis, 19, a Midwifery student, said protesters were being unfairly portrayed by Tsipras as nationalist bigots and not patriots. “They’re trying to make us look like Nazis, and you’re not if you want to defend your country,” she said.
She was off for better things too but added, “Even if they get the name I want the people of Europe to know they are not Greek. We want to keep our history intact.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)