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article imageIn Greek region of Macedonia, anger at imminent name deal

By Vassilis KYRIAKOULIS (AFP)     Jan 23, 2019 in World

As lawmakers in Athens are poised to approve a landmark name deal between Greece and Macedonia, there is relief in many European capitals that a 27-year diplomatic dispute is nearing its end.

But in Greece's Macedonia region, home to the ancient Greek-speaking kingdom made famous by Alexander the Great, there is mostly outrage.

"How can another country have Macedonia's name? What are we, then?" wonders Eleni, a 39-year-old souvenir shop owner.

"It's like taking away our soul, our history and culture," she adds.

Eleni's shop is a few metres away from the necropolis of ancient Macedonian kings in Vergina 485 kilometres (300 miles) north of Athens, one of Greece's top archaeological sites.

Among the Macedonian royals buried there is Philip II, Alexander's father.

The agreement expected to be approved on Thursday will rename Greece's neighbour as the Republic of North Macedonia, a move which the government in Athens says will encourage trade and benefit both countries.

But critics here say the deal, brokered by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev in June, will merely create confusion and sow new problems.

A key sticking point for them is Greece's recognition of a Macedonian language and identity north of the border.

To most Greeks  Alexander the Great is an integral part of their heritage
To most Greeks, Alexander the Great is an integral part of their heritage

Many homes in this small village are adorned with blue flags bearing the Vergina Sun, an ancient Macedonian symbol believed to be the mark of Philip's royal family.

But souvenir seller Eleni said most people outside Greece are more familiar with the red-and-yellow flag adopted by Skopje in 1995, which also bears a sun.

"Tourists come from various European countries asking to buy the flag of Macedonia. When I show them the (blue) flag, they tell me that I'm wrong and that it should be red and yellow," she says angrily.

"This is what our politicians have achieved: make people believe that Macedonia is not in Greece!" she adds.

- 'We cannot accept this' -

North of the border there is also opposition, with some loath to change the country's name to placate Greece, and rallies against the agreement have been held in both countries.

Tsipras' nationalist allies bolted from the government earlier this month over the deal.

Sunday's protests against the name change agreement injured 17 protests and 25 police officers
Sunday's protests against the name change agreement injured 17 protests and 25 police officers

His leftist government says the protests have been fanned by far-right hardliners, and several lawmakers say they have received death threats. Another demonstration is scheduled for Thursday in Athens.

"Hang the traitors," several protesters shout at a demonstration against the agreement held in the northern Greek city of Veria this week.

A local mayor tells the 1,000-strong crowd Greece had been "pressured" into signing the agreement by our "so-called allies", the US and Germany.

"There must be a referendum. Most Greeks do not want this agreement. Soon (the Macedonians) will start claiming (ancient Macedonian) cities," argues Nikos Kalaitzidis, a 37-year-old protester.

At the archaeological museum of Vergina, local staff view visiting tourist groups from neighbouring Macedonia with suspicion, says a staffer.

A Vergina gift shop selling magnets with the 'Vergina Sun'  symbol of the ancient kingdom ...
A Vergina gift shop selling magnets with the 'Vergina Sun', symbol of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia

"If they have a guide with them, we send someone to find out what they are told about the archaeological finds," he told AFP.

"Since they claim to speak Macedonian, we ask them to read what is written on the (ancient Greek) grave markers," the employee adds.

To most Greeks, Alexander the Great is an integral part of their heritage -- one of history's greatest conquerors who toppled the Persian Empire and took Greek culture as far as Egypt and India in the fourth century BC.

The Romans later created an enormous province called Macedonia that included parts of modern-day Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Slavs subsequently migrated to the area of present-day Macedonia from the 6th century AD onwards.

Angelos Syrigos, a professor of international law at Athens' Panteion University, notes that the Macedonia issue is visceral to the Greeks, as the country has been invaded three times via its northern border over the last century.

"The Greeks are not specifically worried about any possible irredentist ambitions by Skopje, but by that of other foreign powers who could use the neighbouring state to assert their influence in the region," he says.

Under Zaev's predecessor Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia had riled Greeks by naming its main airport and highway after Alexander the Great.

Zaev's government revised the Macedonian constitution to promote the name change agreement, and has pledged to end all appropriation of ancient Greek symbols.

But many here still fear this could be easily reversed by a future administration in Skopje.

"We cannot accept this. We will continue our struggle even if this agreement is approved," says Vangelis Mavridis, a Vergina villager.

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