THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Tens of thousands of flag-waving Greeks gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki on Sunday to demand that Macedonia change its name because it’s also the name of the Greek province of which Thessaloniki is the capital.
Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, which share a border, have been locked in the name dispute since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Greeks feel deeply the use of the name Macedonia is a usurpation of their heritage and implies territorial claims on their province.
Macedonia is represented in international organizations as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and is seated in the United Nations under the letter T, right after Thailand. Greece successfully vetoed Macedonia’s application to join NATO in 2008.
Sunday’s rally was staged in front of a statue of Alexander the Great, the most famous ruler of the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia. No public official was among the five keynote speakers. The best-known speaker was Fragoulis Frangos, a retired general and former chief of the Greek Army Staff, who is said to harbor political ambitions.
Several local lawmakers attended, as did the local bishop, Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessalonica, whom many people consider the real leader of the nationalist hardliners opposing an accommodation between the countries.
Anthimos, in speaking about the citizens of Macedonia, used the term Skopje, the name of its capital, which is how most Greeks refer to them.
“Demonstrate, my brothers for Macedonia … Skopje will never be accepted with the name Macedonia by the people’s conscience,” Anthimos thundered from the pulpit during his sermon. “If we only shut (access) to the port (of Thessaloniki), they’re dead the following week.”
The rally didn’t reach the magnitude of one in 1992, when the name issue first flared up. It was prompted by recent efforts on both sides of the border to find an acceptable compromise. The defeat last year of Macedonia’s nationalist conservatives by the social democrats has improved the climate, and Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev accepted the invitation by Thessaloniki mayor Yannis Boutaris, an outspoken anti-nationalist, to spend New Year’s in the city.
But those who took part in the rally would have none of it.
“Today, the message is aimed primarily at Greek politicians,” said Giorgos Tatsios, president of the Greek Federation of Macedonian Cultural Associations. “Those who use the name of Macedonia and give it away with no scruples. We call on the government and, especially, the foreign ministry and (foreign minister Nikos) Kotzias to become the hero of Greek Macedonians and not hand over the name. If he does, he should know he is a traitor to the nation.”
Naturally, there were dissenters, but they didn’t show up, except for a few hundred anarchists, who had their own banner: “Against nationalism; the whole earth is our homeland.” Some of them clashed with passers-by, prompting police to intervene.
People presumed to be right-wing extremists set fire to a building occupied by some of the anarchist counter-demonstrators in the center of the city. The building suffered extensive damage, but none of its occupants was present when masked men set fire to it.
Leftist prime minister Alexis Tsipras has said, most recently in an interview published Sunday in newspaper Ethnos, that he wouldn’t mind a composite name that includes the word Macedonia. But his coalition partner, defense minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks party, has taken a hardline stance, saying he wouldn’t accept the inclusion of the name Macedonia, suggesting the neighboring country call itself Vardarska.
Nellas reported from Athens.
Follow Costas Kantouris on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CostasKantouris