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Protesters Gather in Athens for Rally Over Macedonia Name Giveaway (Video)

February 5, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Protesters from across Greece converged Sunday on Athens’ main square outside parliament to protest a potential Greek compromise in a dispute with neighboring FYROM over the former Yugoslav republic’s official name.

Hundreds of charted buses brought protesters in from around the country to the Greek capital, while more arrived on ferries from the islands. Traffic was blocked throughout the city center and three major subway stops were closed.

Chanting “Hands off Macedonia!” and “Macedonia belongs to Greece!” tens of thousands of protesters converged on Syntagma Square, many waving flags bearing the Star of Vergina, the emblem of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia.

Police officials estimated the attendance at 140,000. Organizers, who claimed 1.5 million were protesting, used a crane to raise a massive Greek flag over the square.

Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias posted an announcement on his Twitter account on Sunday regarding the rally over FYROM name issue, stressing that he would continue to negotiate for the country’s interest.

“The polls of corruption were proved wrong today. New Democracy was revealed as well as those who did not listen to Ecumenical Patriarch: Millions of Greek patriots made their choice. Therefore, I continue to negotiate for the country’s interest.”

In Skopje, a spokesman for the FYROM government said he didn’t know whether his government would react to the rally. Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski said in a TV interview that the rally hurt the prospects of a deal on the name issue.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was dismissive of the event.

“The overwhelming majority of the Greek people…irrespective of their opinions (on the issue) agree that major foreign policy issues cannot be solved through fanaticism and intolerance,” he said in a statement.

Tsipras used the occasion to attack Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his fellow conservative, former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, for allegedly trying to use Sunday’s rally for their advantage and to paper over their own differing approaches.

About 700 left-wing and anarchist protesters set up a counter-demonstration nearby, bearing banners calling for Balkan unity. “Macedonia belongs to its bears” read one banner.

Dozens of riot police were deployed to keep the two demonstrations separate.

Suspected far-right supporters attempted to attack the counter-demonstration, but were prevented by police who used stun grenades and tear gas to hold them back. The far-right side responded by throwing rocks at police.

There were also reports alleging that anarchists attacked a biker carrying a Greek flag and a person wearing a T-shirt commemorating the participation of Greek mercenaries in the massacres of Muslim civilians in Bosnia during the 1990s.

“We are calling on deputies, who have the right to ask for a referendum, to raise the issue in Parliament and activate this issue of national importance,” composer Mikis Theodorakis said.

“We are the only ones who can or cannot give FYROM people the right to make theirs an integral part of Hellenism, through the use of the term Macedonia,” he underlined.

“I firmly believe that we must deal with this great problem united. And I firmly believe that we are united because despite our differences, we are all patriots,” Theodorakis stressed.

The Greek composer said that Skopje distort the history and added that Greece is not allowed to agree with the distortion of history “because it will become an accomplice with the forces that openly target our territorial integrity.”

“Then what can be done?” he wondered and replied that: “We must admit our mistakes and our responsibilities to the Greek people.”

“There is a political decision to give our identity to strangers,” said Professor of Constitutional Law, Yiorgos Kassimatis, who was a keynote speaker on Sunday in the rally over the FYROM name issue at Syntagma square.

The professor added: “Today, all Greece is here. Article 120 is for the first time implemented today. This is the resistance against No. All this happens when we have governments that have said ‘yes’ to slavery since 2010. Today, the Greek people are taking control of their sovereignty.”

“Greece is here,” he continued, “and is saying no to slavery since 2010. No to the concession of Greek land to foreigners. Greece is being sold out today.”

In addition, he said: “Then Turkey should be called Ionian and Sicily a great Greece. I am calling a professor of international law to give me an example of a name that has nothing to do with the history of its people.”

“We are trying to show the politicians … that they must not give up the name ‘Macedonia’,” said 55-year-old protester Manos Georgiou.

About 700 left-wing and anarchist protesters set up a counter-demonstration nearby, bearing banners calling for Balkan unity.

Dozens of riot police were deployed to keep the two demonstrations separate.

The more than quarter-century dispute broke out after FYROM gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The country is recognized by international institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, even though about 130 countries refer to it simply as “Macedonia”. Many Greeks refer to it by the name of its capital, Skopje.

Greece argues use of the name implies territorial claims on its own province of Macedonia, home of one of the most famous ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great.

Officials in Skopje counter that their country has been known as “Macedonia” for a long time.

The squabble has prevented FYROM from joining NATO, to which Greece already belongs. The left-led governments in both countries have pledged to seek a solution this year, and have been holding talks with U.N. negotiator Matthew Nimetz.

The most likely solution will be to add a modifier such as “new” or “north” to the republic’s name. But the proposals have triggered protests in both countries.

The crowd at the rally jeered when speakers mentioned Nimetz’s name.

“We’re expecting them to hear us,” protester Maria Iosifidou said of Greece’s politicians. “We don’t want Skopje to take the name …let them have another name.”

About 100,000 people attended a similar protest last month in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the capital of Greece’s province of Macedonia.

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ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press

Raphael Kominis and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed to this report.

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