Pella (Greece) (AFP) – Thousands of Greeks protested Wednesday in main cities around the country against attempts to solve a festering 27-year name row with Macedonia, reportedly now close to a deal.
Around 2,000 people gathered in Pella, the historic capital of the ancient Macedonian kingdom, birthplace of Alexander the Great, an AFP reporter said.
Organisers had hoped for over twice that number.
“We invite our neighbours, who are ignorant of history, to come to (our) museums and archaeological sites and discover that Macedonia is Greek,” Halkidona mayor Ioannis Tsouknidas told the crowd.
“I think the government will be pressured by the protests and will not proceed to an agreement,” said Katerina Karamouza, a 60-year-old wearing traditional folk garb to the demonstration.
The protests, organised by a committee backed by Greek diaspora, clerics and local mayors associations, were likewise held in over a dozen cities in the northern Greek region of Macedonia.
“(Zoran) Zaev, you can only be born Macedonian. You cannot become one,” read a protester banner addressed to the Macedonian prime minister.
Smaller gatherings were also held in central Greece, and on the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Corfu and Kos.
“We estimate 500-1,000 people in each city,” a police source said.
Athens objects to the neighbouring state’s constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia, because Greece fears it may imply territorial ambitions.
Ancient Macedonia was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire, a point of pride to Greeks today.
But under the Romans, the province of Macedonia was expanded to include territory in modern-day Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
The name dispute dates back to 1991, when Skopje declared independence from war-torn Yugoslavia.
Athens objects to its neighbour’s constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia — but it is close to a compromise name that will almost certainly contain the term “Macedonia”.
After months of renewed discussion, the list of names has narrowed down to “New Macedonia”, “Northern Macedonia” and “Upper Macedonia”.
“These are three names acceptable to us,” Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told state TV ERT on Monday.
Greece has prepared a 20-page draft agreement and the issue is now being handled directly by Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Kotzias said.
Zaev last week said the negotiations were in “the final stages”.
Greece wants the name change to be backed with a constitutional amendment and for it to be applied on the “erga omnes” (“towards all”) legal principle, meaning universal use inside and outside Macedonia.
The dispute has slowed Macedonia’s hopes of joining the European Union and NATO, as Greece can veto its membership bids.
Dozens of countries including the United States and Russia have already recognised the country as “Macedonia”.
Several protests have been held in Greece and Macedonia in recent months against a compromise solution.
On Saturday, thousands of supporters of Macedonia’s rightwing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party took to the streets of the capital Skopje to protest against plans to change their country’s name.
Greece estimates that protest at under 20,000 people, Kotzias said.
In Greece, scores of thousands demonstrated in Athens and Thessaloniki against a compromise earlier this year.