Mass protest in Athens over Macedonia name dispute

By bne IntelliNews February 4, 2018

At least 140,000 protesters from across Greece held a mass protest in Athens on February 4 against a potential compromise in Greece's dispute with its northern neighbor over the use of the name "Macedonia". 

Protestors oppose the Greek government's willingness to solve the name dispute between Athens and Skopje, which has divided the two countries for more than two decades and stymied Macedonian hopes of approaching EU accession. Greece opposes to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province in the north with the same name.

Hundreds of buses brought protesters in front of the parliament in the Greek capital, while more people arrived on ferries from the islands. Traffic was blocked throughout the city centre and three major subway stops were closed, Greek daily Kathimerini reported

Protestors chanted "Hands off Macedonia!" and "Macedonia belongs to Greece!" while waving flags bearing the Star of Vergina, the emblem of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. 

According to police, around 140,000 people attended the protest while the organisers claimed that 1.5mn gathered in Syntagma Square.

At the same time, a counter-protest was held by around 700 left-wingers and anarchists calling for Balkan unity. 

The protests were held amid a heavy police presence and several incidents were reported.

Far-right activists attempted to attack the counter-demonstration, but were prevented by police, who used stun grenades and tear gas to hold them back, according to Kathimerini. The far-right protesters responded by throwing rocks at police. There were also reports of anarchists attacking some bikers. 

Renowned Greek composer and former minister Mikis Theodorakis, 92, was the keynote speaker at the rally. He reiterated the controversial claim that Greece’s neighbour wants to expand into Greek territory. 

Highlighting the emotive nature of the dispute, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias reportedly recently received death threats after saying that the dispute can be solve within months.

A similar protest was held in the Greek northern port of Thessaloniki on January 21 when nearly 100,000 people gathered to demonstrate their unwillingness to see a compromise. 

The long-standing name dispute between the two countries is blocking Macedonia’s bids to join Nato and the EU. The Greek authorities expect the solution to include a composite name for Greece's northern neighbour that will be used by all international organisations, in bilateral relations and internally through the change of the name in personal documents of Macedonian citizens.

In the meantime negotiations between the two countries are ongoing under UN mediation. Kotzias said after the Thessaloniki protest that the demonstrations will not affect the negotiation process.

A likely outcome is for Skopje to adopt a composite name to replace the country name Macedonia, which is what the Greek authorities want. However, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said recently that if both sides reach a point that will affect the national identity of Macedonians, “unfortunately there would be no solution”.

If resolved, Macedonia would expect to be invited to join Nato and to obtain a date to start its long-awaited EU negotiations.

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