ATHENS – They came by the scores of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – packed into buses, planes, trains and automobiles, from the mountains, islands, seaside, hills, cities, town, villages, valleys, from the Peloponnese to Preveza, Alexandroupoli to the capital Athens itself, all with the same message that would be ignored: Macedonia is Greek.
Anywhere from 100,000 to 140,000 to what organizers claimed could have been a million people swarmed Feb. 4 outside Parliament in Syntagma Square, scene of hundreds of failed protests and strikes against austerity measures, to demand this time they be heard.
They weren’t. Prime Minister and Radical Left anti-nationalist SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras and his point man on the issue, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, said they were prepared to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the word Macedonia in a new composite to end a 25-year name feud between the countries.
Greeks covered themselves in an ocean of their country’s flags, waved the banners, shouted slogans that weren’t heard at Maximos Mansion where Tsipras’ office is, and listened to one of the country’s most renowned Leftists and political activists, famed composer Mikis Theodorakis, 91, rail at Tsipras for wanting to give away the name Macedonia.
“There is only one Macedonia,” he said from his wheelchair, using his voice like a baton over an orchestra, this one the crowd before him. “It is and always will be Greek.”
Not to Tsipras and Kotzias who said, under pressure from the United States which wants to get FYROM into NATO – barred by a Greek veto so far – to come to terms over a name that would include Macedonia, already used by more than 140 of the world’s 195 countries.
This crowd wasn’t buying it.
“Those people came from the north. They are Slavs, not Greeks,” Efthymios Skaribas, 44, a dentist who studied at Tufts University near Boston told The National Herald as he walked back from the event.
He said Tsipras, Kotzias and SYRIZA won’t heed the call not to give away the name. “They don’t care and that is why I am here,” he said in measured tones without anger, unlike the fury shown by nationalists such as those in the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party who’ve accused the government of being “traitors”.
Ironically, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are Tsipras’ coalition partner, wasn’t there even though he said he opposes the name giveaway – after indicating he would not.
Mary Angelopoulou, husband Costas Anagnostou and son Konstandinos, Jr. came prepared for the rally with their flags. Photo by TNH/Andy Dabilis.
Mary Angelopoulou, 40 and husband Costas Anagnostou were wearing the Greek flag around their shoulders while 8-year-old son Konstandinos carried his, as his parents said they came to show their support for Macedonia and protest SYRIZA’s stance.
“We want to show something to the government which doesn’t listen to the people,” said Anagnostou, 40, a computer programmer and student of history.. “They just want to sit in their chairs,” he said.
His wife said if Greece gives in to FYROM that other countries will make territorial claims, such as Albania has in demanding Greece recognize the rights of Chams in the northern province of Epirus. “Everyone will ask for a piece of what you have,” she said.
Protests some 26 years ago in Thessaloniki reportedly drew as many as a million people and Stavroula Tzifa, 52, a philologist, as she, too, held the flag of Greece in her hand said she was there and upset still that FYROM claims Alexander the Great as its own.
It wasn’t just Greek flags but those of ancient times and Macedonia that were on display and being carried. Photo by TNH/Andy Dabilis.
“Our history has taught us that the great Alexander was born in Pella (Macedonia) and gave us these battles,” she said. “We have to pass this knowledge on to our children and not let this other country take it.”
Indeed, it’s more than just a name that critics fear would be lost: but heritage, culture, history and that FYROM – which so far has offered only change the names of Alexander the Great airport and national highway – will not change its Constitution to renounce irredentist claims on Greek territories.
“They want Thessaloniki and our lands that our grandfathers died for,” she said of FYROM. As for Tsipras, Kotzias and SYRIZA, she said that, “It’s political games for them and NATO,” that will cost Greece a piece of his history and legacy forever.
Konstandinos Moises, 46, was even more strident. “The name Macedonia is Greek. The name Skopje (FYROM’s capital and the name used by many Greeks to identify that country) is Slavic.” Despite the turnout, that was dismissed by Tsipras and Kotzias as far less than the million the organizers hoped for, Moises said the protest would likely be futile.
“I’m not sure the government will change its mind,” he said as talks being brokered by United Nations Envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who failed for more than two decades to find a solution, have picked up after a three-year break.
He has reportedly put five names on the table, with qualifiers such as Northern, Upper and New, some in Slavic, but all with the one word Greeks don’t want to hear: Macedonia. Nimetz said any hopes for a compromise otherwise would be “unrealistic” and fail.
It may be a lost cause no matter how many people turned out as Nimetz moves ahead in talks with Greece and FYROM and as Greece’s leaders conceded they’ve relented.
Haris Angelides, 34, an economist at a private bank in Greece told TNH that, “It’s just cheap diplomacy to get the issue off the table,” and that Greece’s government was snide in dismissing those who want to keep Macedonia’s name.
“They tried to show this protest would be filled with nationalists,” he said as behind him the parting waves of the sea of people walked peacefully away from the scene, the Greek flag omnipresent in a late winter’s day sliding sun. “We are all normal people,” he said.