ATHENS – With wildly varying estimates of how many people – from 100,000 to 1.5 million – at a demonstration protesting government plans to give away the name Macedonia in a new composite for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Greece’s ruling Radical Left SYRIZA said it fizzled out and failed to impress, or change its mind.
Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, the driving force to let FYROM keep the word Macedonia – the name of an abutting ancient Greek province – tweeted his disdain for the protest effort he said wouldn’t dissuade him and said the major opposition New Democracy (ND) was behind the attempt to roil the government.
“Today, the opinion polls of vested interests were refuted; ND was exposed to all, as well as those (protesters) that did not heed the Ecumenical Patriarch’s address … Millions of Greek patriots made their choice. I, therefore, continue, with a clean conscience and responsibility, to negotiate for the good of the country,” was his Tweet.
Tsipras’ office put out a statement that said the government’s “compass is the patriotic best interest (of the country), moderation, consensus and a perseverance on clear positions, with the target being cooperation, understanding and mutual development … any other stance will only lead to national defeats.”
“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 added.
“Their hopes to exploit the demonstration for political gain were dashed,” the statement went on to say although Tsipras, who does not hold news conference, was not available to reporters for questioning.
The statement also said that New Democracy’s hopes of “millions of protesters” were shattered but there was no comment from SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who is opposed to the giveaway, as is the Church of Greece which allowed clerics to attend.
With New Democracy holding a big lead in polls after Tsipras reneged on anti-austerity promises, the Conservatives leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis – whose late father was the Premier in 1992 who let the newly-emerging country breaking off from Yugoslavia use the word Macedonia – said Tsipras was using the name issue to distract attention from the economy and his faltering in polls.
Mitsotakis tweeted that, citizens had “expressed their anxiety and lack of trust in a government that did everything to divide Greeks on a crucial national issue.”
His sister and former foreign minister Dora Bakoyanni, in an interview with Real News, said any deal reached by SYRIZA will be over the name only and let force FYROM to renounce claims on Greek territory, including the second-largest city and port of Thessaloniki.
“We’ll (Greek side) be paying in cash, and Skopje (FYROM on credit. At the same time, we’ll have lost a lever of pressure, namely, the acquis of the (2008) Bucharest (NATO summit).”
She was referring to Greece blocking FYROM’s entry into NATO – as well as European Union hopes – which could continue unless the name issue is settled, leaving Greece with nothing in return except FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev’s promise to change the name of his country’s airport and major highway, named for Alexander the Great, but not remove a statue of the Greek conqueror in the capital of Skopje.
United Nations Special Envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who’s failed for two decades to find an answer, has resumed talks after a three-year break and reportedly proposed five names for a new composite, but all include Macedonia and he said Greece has no choice but to go along.
Tsipras has also said that and that he wants to open the door for FYROM to get into NATO and the EU with critics saying he’s trying to aid an American hope to build up the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests even though SYRIZA came to power on a promise to take Greece out of NATO and remove a US military base on Crete.
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.
Kotzias earlier hit out at Nimetz, who said he believed Greece was “not denying the identity” of the people of FYROM. “I clearly and sternly stressed that it is not within his competence to talk about what Athens’ policy is, much less to describe it incorrectly,” Kotzias said.
THE MAIN EVENT
At the rally, featuring Greek flags flying and being waved everywhere and draped over people’s shoulders, there was unbridled patriotism and scorn for Tsipras, SYRIZA and Kotzias.
Hundreds of chartered buses brought protesters in from around the country to the Greek capital, while more people 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!” the protesters converged on Syntagma Square in front of Parliament, 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 at the rally, used a crane to raise a massive Greek flag over the square.
“We are trying to show the politicians … that they must not give up the name ‘Macedonia’,” said 55-year-old protester Manos Georgiou.
In Skopje, a spokesman for the FYROM government said he didn’t know whether his government would react to the rally. FYROM opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski said in a TV interview that the rally hurt the prospects of a deal on the name issue.
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.
The name dispute broke out after Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is recognized by international institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, even though about 140 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.
SUN OF JUSTICE
Officials in Skopje counter that their country has been known as Macedonia for a long time.
Composer and former minister Mikis Theodorakis, 92, the keynote speaker at the rally, repeated the controversial claim that Greece’s neighbor wants to expand into Greek territory.
“Using the name Macedonia as a vehicle and twisting historical events to a ridiculous extent, they actually seek to expand their borders at the expense of ours,” Theodorakis said.
Rejecting any compromise on Greece’s part, Theodorakis called for a referendum on the issue.
“There is only one Macedonia,” he said. “It is, was and will always be Greek.” In an apparent dig at the leftist-led coalition he broke with after Tsipras reneged on its alleged principles and imposed more brutal conditions on workers, pensioners and the poor, Theodorakis also hit out at “left-wing fascism.”
Earlier in the day, an anarchist group claimed responsibility for vandalizing Theodorakis’ home on the eve of the rally, accusing him of supporting “nationalistic and patriotic riffraff.”
The crowd at the rally in Athens 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.
According to police estimates, some 140,000 people joined the Feb. 4 protest. Organizers, however, put the turnout closer to 1 million people and even 1.5 million.
Right-wing lawmakers and clerics joined farmers, pensioners as well as young Greeks in a large crowd outside Parliament. Members of the extreme-right Golden Dawn were also in attendance.
Despite its size the rally was mostly peaceful, thanks largely to some 20,000 police officers who were deployed across the capital.
Self-styled anarchists, who organized a counter-demonstration a few blocks from the main rally in Syntagma Square, briefly clashed with police who fired tear gas to disperse them.
Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Toskas said the Greek police (ELAS) estimate of 140,000 was correct and that aerial video footage at the height of the rally proved it, although he said the time and date weren’t working.
In comments to ANT1 television, Toskas said that the estimate given by ELAS was “entirely accurate” and “has nothing to do with political expediency.”
The minister insisted that the demonstrators’ estimate was way off. “If there had been a million people, they would have reached Ambelokipi,” he said, referring to a neighborhood farther away.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)