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Thousands of Greeks protest over right to name ‘Macedonia’

Protesters waved Greek flags and shouted slogans during a rally Sunday in Athens over rights to the name Macedonia.
Protesters waved Greek flags and shouted slogans during a rally Sunday in Athens over rights to the name Macedonia. Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

ATHENS — About 140,000 people gathered in the Greek capital Sunday to stage the biggest demonstration in decades against the inclusion of the word “Macedonia” in the name of a neighboring former Yugoslav republic, saying it implies a territorial claim on a northern Greek region.

Based on police estimates, the rally was bigger than most of the numerous demonstrations organized after Greece signed its first international bailout program in 2010, paving the way for years of austerity. But it appeared to short of the 1 million people that organizers said turned out.

Greece and the Republic of Macedonia began United Nations-mediated talks last month to try to settle the 25-year name dispute. The conflict dates to 1991, when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia.

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Many Greeks argue that its neighbor’s use of “Macedonia” suggests a territorial claim to the Greek region of that name, whose capital is Thessaloniki. That city has itself staged protests over the disagreement.

Using this argument, Greece has blocked the Republic of Macedonia’s attempts to join NATO and the European Union. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told officials in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, last month that the name dispute with Greece would have to be resolved before the Balkan country could be considered for membership in the alliance.

The negotiations appear to have stirred patriotic sentiment, as well as stoking tensions, on both sides of the conflict. Last week, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias of Greece, who is representing Athens in the talks, received death threats in the mail that mentioned the negotiations.

For some Greeks, analysts say, the prospect of concessions in foreign policy is a step too far after years of submission to international creditors.

Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis sought to tap into that patriotism in a speech Sunday outside the parliament building in Syntagma Square. “There is only one Macedonia,” he told the crowd. “It was, is, and will always be Greek.”

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The home of the 92-year-old composer, revered for his resistance to the military dictatorship in Greece of 1967 to 1974, was defaced Saturday, apparently by vandals protesting his plan to attend the rally.

The demonstrators Sunday came from around the country, many arriving in the capital aboard hundreds of buses, or from the islands by ferry.

Some wore traditional clothing, while others dressed as Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek warrior king whose realm was centered in the northern Greek region of Macedonia. Right-wing politicians and representatives of the Greek Orthodox clergy joined them in a sea of Greek flags.

Thousands of police officers were deployed to keep the peace, and the organizers also asked army veterans and reserves to prevent infiltration by anarchists staging a separate rally. In the afternoon, a small crowd of anarchists threw stones at police officers, who responded with tear gas, but the unrest was brief and isolated.

About 700 left-wing and anarchist protesters took part in the counterdemonstration.

Last month, Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, drew around 100,000 people to a protest on the issue of use of the Macedonian name.

Both demonstrations were a far cry, however, from one held in 1992, a year after the Balkan state broke away from Yugoslavia and named itself Macedonia. On that day, 1 million Greeks packed the streets of Thessaloniki.

The breakaway country joined the United Nations in 1993 under the provisional name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Since then, however, dozens of countries have routinely referred to the nation as Macedonia.

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Negotiations between Athens and Skopje have become strained. After the UN special envoy in the dispute, Matthew Nimetz, indicated last week that Athens did not appear to be “denying the identity of the Macedonian people,” he received an angry call from Kotzias, the Greek foreign minister.

“I clearly and sternly stressed that it is not within his competence to talk about what Athens’ policy is, much less to describe it incorrectly,” Kotzias said in a statement Saturday.

The talks have also contributed to a rift in Greece’s governing coalition, with leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras saying it is “not unreasonable” for the word Macedonia to be used in a compound name for the country.

His coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, who leads the right-wing Independent Greeks party and who is defense minister, has insisted that the word Macedonia must not be part of the neighbor’s name. The powerful Greek Orthodox Church also opposes allowing the neighbor rights to the word.

One solution under consideration is to to add a modifier such as ‘‘new’’ or ‘‘north’’ to the republic’s name, but that idea has also drawn opposition in both countries.

Even if the two nations were to reach a compromise, Macedonian officials have indicated that they would like to submit the deal to a popular vote by means of a referendum.

Should that be the case, Greece would come under domestic pressure to do the same, most likely producing a deadlock.

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