A mass protest took place in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, on January 21 as tens of thousands of Greeks sought to prevent a deal with the country’s northern neighbour that would see it continue to use the name “Macedonia” in some combination.
Greece objects to the name Macedonia, adopted by its neighbour after it broke away from former Yugoslavia, as it has a northern province with the same name, and for years has blocked Skopje’s ambitions of joining the EU and Nato. Greek politicians have accused Macedonia of irredentism, even though the small country is too weak to have territorial claims, and the authorities in Skopje have repeatedly denied any such ambitions.
The protest took place at a time when hopes are high that the two sides could solve the long-standing dispute under the UN mediation, given the goodwill from both Athens and Skopje. However, the scale of the protest raised fears that Greek opposition could thwart the latest efforts of the two governments to find a mutually acceptable solution.
According to media reports, several potential names for the country were proposed at the latest round of talks. These include Republic of New Macedonia, Republic of Northern Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).
None would find favour with participants in the protest, since they are all a variation on the name Macedonia. It attracted citizens from all over Greece, who were bussed to Thessaloniki to participate in the rally. Around 500 buses were estimated to have brought people to the rally with around 50,000 demonstrators estimated to have attended, according to Greek Reporter.
The protest was held amid a strong police presence in front of the White Tower in downtown Thessaloniki. Clergymen, members of Macedonian unions from northern Greece, politicians, retired soldiers and members of other organisations participated.
During the protest, demonstrators waving Greek flags shouted “Macedonia is Greek” and called politicians who are in favour for solution 'traitors'.
The protest went relatively peacefully with just minor incidents. According to media, there was an incident in the morning when a bus transferring citizens from Athens was attacked with stones and other objects. A woman was injured in the incident, according to Efimerida.
The event’s official web page said that the protest was not initiated by any political party, and that its only aim was to send a clear message to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to stop using the name Macedonia. It was reportedly organised by diaspora organisations. A group of Greeks from the diaspora in Australia also held a protest in Melbourne.
Macedonia was admitted to the UN under the name FYROM in 1993 to avoid a conflict with Greece, and international institutions use the acronym even though the country is recognised under its constitutional name by over 130 countries.
Thessaloniki's mayor Yiannis Boutaris, who before the New Year holidays hosted a dinner for Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, did not participate in the protest. He denounced the event as counter-productive to the interests of the country due to the ongoing negotiations.
UN envoy Matthew Nimetz said recently, after meeting negotiators from the two countries, he is hopeful that a solution can be found with more progress in the talks expected in a few months.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told Greek daily Ethnos it would be a “national stupidity” if Greece fails to use the opportunity to solve the name dispute with Macedonia.
However, many Greeks are understood to be sympathetic to the protesters’ cause. A recent poll showed that almost 70% of Greek citizens disagree with the use of Macedonia as part of any new name for the country.
On the other hand, the wide range of opinions over the issue was highlighted in the comments on an article published in Kathimerini on January 20, titled "‘Traitors,’ ‘patriots’ and the FYROM name row”. One commentator wrote, “For me this issue is really the best amusement one can get, like a brilliant soap. I love the twists and complications about something completely nonsense though most Greeks will not agree with this.”
Others believe the issue Greece is making about the name Macedonia is only to deflect attention from its own economic problems.
“Its just Greek paranoia,” another comment said.
But it has serious consequences for Skopje, since the long-standing conflict is blocking Macedonia's bid to join Nato and the EU. Now, however, the new government in Skopje led by the Social Democrats, which came to power at the end of May, has been vigorously trying to reach a compromise with Greece. Zaev has said that Macedonians can decide whether they will accept the new compromise name in a referendum.
According to initial reports in the Greek media, Tsipras prefers the name Vardar Macedonia while for Macedonia the most desirable solution is New Macedonia.
Zaev is expected to meet his Greek peer on January 24 or 25 on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for further talks aimed at resolving the name spat.