More than 100,000 protesters from across Greece have converged on Athens’s main square to protest against a potential Greek compromise in a dispute with neighbouring Macedonia over the former Yugoslav republic’s official name.
Hundreds of coaches 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 centre 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 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. Organisers, who claimed 1.5 million were protesting, 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.
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.
Suspected far-rightists attempted to attack the counter-demonstration but were prevented by police, who used stun grenades and tear gas to hold them back. The far-rightists responded by throwing rocks at police. There were also reported incidents of anarchists attacking some bikers.
The name dispute broke out after Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The country is recognised 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.
Composer and former minister Mikis Theodorakis, 92, the keynote speaker at the rally, repeated the controversial claim that Greece’s neighbour 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,” Mr Theodorakis said.
Rejecting any compromise on Greece’s part, Mr Theodorakis called for a referendum on the issue.
The squabble has prevented Macedonia 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 UN 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 Sunday’s rally in Athens jeered when speakers mentioned Mr 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.