ATHENS: Tens of thousands of Greeks staged a mass rally in Athens Sunday, urging the government not to compromise in a festering name row with neighbouring Macedonia.
As a huge Greek flag flew over central Syntagma Square, Greeks from all over the country and abroad chanted “Hands off Macedonia”, “Macedonia is Greek” and “We won’t leave until we are vindicated”.
Athens objects to Macedonia’s name, arguing it suggests that Skopje has claims to the territory and heritage of Greece’s historic northern region of the same name.
Greek servicemen salute as demonstrators wave Greek national flags during a demonstration in Athens. Photo: AFP
However, leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been considering a resolution to the 27-year-old dispute, angering many opposition members and his own nationalist coalition partners.
Among those in the crowd was former premier Antonis Samaras — who was foreign minister when the name dispute began in 1991 — along with mayors, senior clerics and army officers.
Organisers said they expected around a million participants on Syntagma Square.
“Macedonia is Greek and only Greek. They are trying to steal history. We all have to fight and let the world know,” said Allia Sarellis, a member of the Greek diaspora who flew in from the US.
Around 2,500 buses from northern Greece and two ships from Crete brought thousands of demonstrators, reports said. Police declined to give numbers.
Some protesters wore traditional garb, including the uniform of Greek guerrillas who fought Bulgarian bands and Ottoman forces in Macedonia in the early 20th century.
“Thousands of Cretans have shed their blood for Macedonia,” a bearded Cretan protester told Skai TV.
The protest — the second on the Macedonia issue in a fortnight — has been organised and funded by Greek diaspora groups, with the support of retired officer associations, cultural unions and church groups.
Renowned Zorba the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis will be the keynote speaker despite battling health issues at 92.
A protester holds a Greek map reads ‘Greece is not for sale’ in front of the Parliament during a rally in Athens. Photo: AP
Theodorakis has trouble walking, but was galvanised after self-styled anarchists vandalised his home with red paint late Saturday.
“I am calm and ready,” the resistance icon said after the incident, urging rally participants “not to be intimidated”.
Anarchists were planning a counter-protest nearby, with riot police deployed to keep the two crowds apart.
Two weeks ago, tens of thousands had protested in Thessaloniki, the capital of Greece’s Macedonia region. Police had estimated the turnout at over 90,000, while organisers claimed at least 400,000 attended.
The dispute has remained unresolved since the former Yugoslav republic’s independence in 1991.
Greece considers the name “Macedonia” to be part of its own cultural heritage, as the province was the core of Alexander the Great’s ancient empire.
Athens seeks guarantees that the use of the name by its neighbour implies no claim to parts of its own territory.
The government has accused far-right hardliners and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party of trying to exploit the issue.
Georgia Bitakou, a journalist and former fight promoter, insists the rally is non-political.
“We are all patriots. There are no parties, no colours. Our only goal is to give a mandate to (state) representatives,” she said.
However, several opposition politicians have indicated they will attend to also protest the government’s tax-hiking policies.
The government insists the rallies will not affect its determination to solve the issue and boost stability in the often tense Balkan region.
Athens says it is ready to accept a composite name that will establish a clear distinction from Greek Macedonia.
“The government is trying to give a patriotic solution to a problem that has troubled the country, its international relations and its diplomacy for over 25 years,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Sunday.
“Not having a solution undermines our national interest,” Prime Minister Tsipras said last week.
Because of Greece’s objections, Macedonia in 1993 joined the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
To break the deadlock, long-term UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has now proposed several alternative names in Macedonian, including “Republika Nova Makedonija” or the “Republic of New Macedonia”.