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article imageGreek hardliners seek to block any deal in the name dispute

By Vassilis KYRIAKOULIS, Katerina NIKOLOPOULOU (AFP)     Jan 21, 2018 in World

Thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of northern Greece's biggest city Thessaloniki on Sunday as hardliners seek to block any deal in the long-running name dispute between Athens and Skopje that contains the term Macedonia.

Athens argues that the name Macedonia suggests that Skopje has territorial claims to the northern Greek region of the same name, of which Thessaloniki is the capital.

Hardline clerics, far-right leaders and Greek diaspora groups have called for rallies, and media reports say 30,000 people are expected to demonstrate in Thessaloniki alone, with more than 400 buses bringing people in from across the country.

"The mobilisation of the people has exceeded all expectations, " Irini Leonardou, a member of the rally's organising committee, told AFP.

Cretans in traditional costumes who have travelled from the southern island with their horses, as well as people from northern Greece wearing costumes from the Macedonian wars era a century ago, were already gathered at the White Tower on the Thessaloniki waterfront ahead of the protest's planned start at 1200 GMT.

Greece and Macedonia returned to the United Nations last week hoping to reach a compromise that could end the 27-year dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's name.

- 'Not negotiable' -

Greece's objections to the use of the name Macedonia since the Balkan country's independence in 1991 have hampered the tiny nation's bid to join the European Union and NATO.

"We demand that the term Macedonia isn't included in the name to which they will agree on. This is not negotiable," said Leonardou, a 59-year-old writer from Thessaloniki, warning that if the Greek government does otherwise "there will be an answer from the Greek people".

The UN negotiator Matthew Nimetz -- a 24-year veteran on the issue -- said last week that he was "very hopeful" that a solution was within reach.

The Greek region of Macedonia boasts the major port cities of Thessaloniki and Kavala and was the centre of Alexander the Great's ancient kingdom, a source of Greek pride.

Despite the nationalist fervour that is also being fed by members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, Greeks appear to be less militant on the issue than in the past.

In 1992, more than one million people -- 10 percent of the population -- joined a rally in Thessaloniki to proclaim that "Macedonia is Greek".

According to a survey conducted for Greek radio station 24/7 by the Alco polling group, 63 percent of respondents said they thought it was in Greece's best interests to seek a mutually acceptable solution at the UN talks.

And the Greek Orthodox Church, which is traditionally opposed to the use of the term Macedonia from Skopje and led the 1992 rally, appears to have distanced itself from Sunday's events.

Its leader Archbishop Ieronymos on Thursday reportedly told Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that "national unity is needed... (not) protests and shouts".

- 'National stupidity' not to find solution -

Tsipras, who is expected to meet with his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev in Davos next week, said in an interview published on Sunday: "If there is an opportunity for a solution, it would be a national stupidity not to make good use of it."

However, he told Ethnos newspaper that he could understand "the concerns and sensitivities" of the Greeks of the north.

Macedonia is known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the United Nations, although the Security Council acknowledged this was a provisional name when it agreed to membership.

If a deal is reached at the UN talks, it will be put before Greek parliament for approval, with the government expecting the compromise name to be approved despite opposition within some parties.

According to Macedonian media, Nimetz has proposed five alternatives all containing the name.

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