In a stalemate with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) over a new name for that country, Greece’s government is facing countrywide protests on June 6 against Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ aim to give away the name Macedonia, that of an abutting ancient Greek province.
A gathering in Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great – which FYROM claimed until recently – was meant to highlight the opposition to the name giveaway, the organizers said, and show they are in a “state of alert” over it.
Rally organizers called for any agreement to be put to a referendum in Greece, as it would in FYROM and insisted that the word Macedonia should not be included in the country’s name under any condition, including names on the table such as New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia.
Similar protests have been held by hardliners in both Greece and FYROM over the past few months, ever since the two governments announced that a new push at a solution was under way. More than 100,000 people attended a rally in Athens in February.
The anti-nationalist Tsipras, leader of the Radical Left SYRIZA, ignored two giant February protests against his plan, which seemed set to reach a deal with FYROM before Prime Minister Zoran Zaev balked at changing his country’s Constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greek lands and using the new name, with a qualifier such as Northern Macedonia for international use, instead of continuing to call itself Macedonia domestically.
Tsipras hoped to seal an agreement before this summer’s meetings of NATO and the European Union and lift Greece’s veto on FYROM’s hopes of getting into the defense alliance and membership in the bloc.
A group calling itself the Committee for the Struggle of Macedonia’s Greekness said it is putting together the protests to begin simultaneously at 7:30 p.m. in cities across the country in a bid to keep Tsipras from giving up the name Macedonia.
Tsipras said he wants to end a 26-year dispute that began when a New Democracy government under then-Premier and New Democracy Conservative leader Constantinos Mitsotakis allowed the new country to Greece’s north breaking away from the collapsing Yugoslavia to use the name Macedonia temporarily.
That turned into an impasse when successive FYROM governments began claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki as well as Greek history, culture and heritage.
United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer, has failed for two decades to broker a solution but this year stepped up talks after a three-year break amid speculation the US wants to bring FYROM into the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
While Greece could continue to use its veto to force FYROM to take a name that does not include Macedonia, more than 140 countries already use that name to refer to FYROM and Nimetz said Greece must concede, suggesting it’s already lost the name battle.
The Macedonia committee said it wants to “remind” Tsipras that “Greek people have made their decision,” with 68 percent previously rejecting the name giveaway, a survey showed. That decision, it added, is to reject any solution that contains the term “Macedonia,” which would be seen as expressing irredentist ambitions over the real Macedonia, reported Kathimerini.
It will put new pressure on Tsipras, who, with Zaev has been accelerating talks before crucial EU and NATO meetings this summer but with SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos opposing any deal allowing the use of Macedonia’s name.
The new negotiations have been facilitated by last year’s change of government in FYROM, with Zaev’s left-led coalition seen as more amenable to a compromise than the conservatives who ruled the country for the previous decade.