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Greek FYROM Name Deal Opponents Make Last-Ditch Protests (Photos)

January 25, 2019

ATHENS – With a vote on whether to ratify a deal to change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) delayed, thousands of protesters across Greece spread out to demonstrate their zealous opposition, turning violent outside Parliament.

Police said more than 2,000 protesters gathered outside Parliament, as lawmakers debated the agreement which would end one the 27-year-long dispute, with FYROM renaming itself North Macedonia and Greece lifting vetoes keeping the country out of NATO and opening European Union accession talks.

The agreement reached between anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras and FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev would give away the name of the ancient Greek province of Macedonia.

Greece got little in return as the deal will let residents of what would be North Macedonia call themselves Macedonians and with a Macedonian language, culture and identity but Tsipras said he did it because 140 countries were already calling FYROM as Macedonia.

Debate in Parliament was extended until Jan. 25 because dozens of lawmakers lined up to make their case although it seemed a foregone conclusion it would pass as Tsipras needed six votes from rival politicians to go along with his party’s 145 in the 300-member body and was said to have at least eight willing to go along.

Tsipras lost his parliamentary majority after his junior coalition partner, the far right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), pulled out of the government due to objections over the name deal.

Another 4,500 Communist Party supporters protested against the agreement in another part of Athens, while hundreds of people in northern Greece blocked the main border crossing to FYROM for hours. Another 3,000 were protesting the deal during two separate marches in Thessaloniki, while similar gatherings were held in other northern towns.

About 1,500 police were on duty in Athens, fearing a repeat of riots by far-rightists during a protest by tens of thousands outside Parliament on Jan. 20 when extremists armed with petrol bombs, stones and clubs tried unsuccessfully to invade the grounds of the building.

The agreement, which FYROM has already ratified, has stirred patriotic sentiment and angered many in both countries, who argue it offers too much to the other side.

Polls show that at least two in three Greeks are against the agreement. Opposition is particularly fierce in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, where critics claim it will sign away their national identity and a cultural heritage dating back to the glory days of Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago.

BOMBS, THREATS

Several lawmakers from the governing SYRIZA party, or others who have committed to backing the deal, elected in northern constituencies, have come under intense pressure – including arson attacks and death threats – to reject the deal.

Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, with ANEL but said to be ready to support the deal, said she was one of the hate campaign victims.

“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.”

On the Evzones border crossing into FYROM, hundreds of farmers and other local residents arrived in cars and blocked traffic despite a heavy police presence. Until the crossing reopened, most traffic was diverted to two other border crossings.

“We came here … 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.

In an attack potentially linked to the agreement, arsonists tried to set fire late Wednesday to the home of a lawmaker with the governing SYRIZA party in the northern town of Giannitsa. 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.

Communist Party protesters draped two giant banners opposing the deal over the walls of the ancient Acropolis and directed their anger at Tsipras for joining with Zaev.

Greek riot police again fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a group that tried to break a cordon outside Parliament although they had been blamed for using the weapons against demonstrators in the Jan. 20 protests. As many as 2,500 people participated in the Jan. 24 night protest.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

Greek riot police throw tear gas grenades during clashes with demonstrators opponents of Prespa Agreement outside the Greek Parliament in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)[/caption]

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