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article imageMillion predicted in Greek demo over Macedonia name row

By Hélène COLLIOPOULOU (AFP)     Feb 3, 2018 in World

A million people could take to the streets in Athens on Sunday in a mass demonstration over Greek attempts to resolve a longstanding name row with Macedonia, organisers say.

Huge crowds are predicted to fill central Syntagma Square to protest a rumoured Greek government compromise to the 27-year dispute with its tiny northern neighbour.

When Macedonia declared independence in 1991 from the collapsing Yugoslav federation, Athens protested, claiming the name implied a territorial claim on the prominent Greek province of Macedonia.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been considering a resolution to the name dispute, angering many in the opposition, but also among his nationalist coalition partners, the Independent Greeks.

"The square will be the meeting point of various heterogeneous groups guided by different sentiments, ranging from a profound concern about the name dispute to disaffection with government policies," Nikolaos Tzifakis, head of the political science department at Peloponnese University, told AFP.

Tsipras has already faced dozens of demonstrations while in power, but Sunday's mass protest -- nominally about foreign policy -- is expected to draw a motley crowd united by opposition to the prime minister, Tzifakis said.

Ironically, pundits expect the largest turnout since the 2015 anti-austerity referendum rally organised by Tsipras at the zenith of his popularity, rejecting cuts demanded by the country's EU-IMF creditors.

Angering many, the Greek government instead agreed to more austerity measures as the country faced being kicked out of the eurozone.

"Many people are now seeing this policy change (over Macedonia) through the prism of the economic crisis and qualify it as one concession too much," Tzifakis adds.

- Opening space 'to radicals' -

Greece considers the name "Macedonia" to be part of its own cultural heritage
Greece considers the name "Macedonia" to be part of its own cultural heritage
Kun TIAN, AFP/File

Organisers of the Macedonia march, headed by Greek diaspora groups, have insisted their protest is apolitical.

"We are all patriots. There are no parties, no colours," said Georgia Bitakou, one of the organisers.

But another large protest on January 21 in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek capital, over the Macedonia name dispute was attended by several lawmakers from the conservative main opposition New Democracy party and neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

Whilst a far cry from a million-strong march on the issue over two decades ago, organisers said more than 400,000 attended the protest.

Police put the figure at closer to 90,000.

"Neither the government nor the opposition expected such a large number of participants. The Athens protest will therefore be quite closely watched by the political class," said Manolis Alexakis, a political scientist at Crete University.

Suspected neo-Nazis vandalised a Jewish memorial on the sidelines of the protest and an anarchist-occupied building was also burned down.

No arrests were made.

Some analysts have warned that Golden Dawn, a violently xenophobic and anti-Semitic group, is exploiting the Macedonia protests to bounce back from a damaging murder trial involving one of its members.

These kinds of mass protests "open up space to radicals, especially the far-right," Alexakis added.

This week, threatening letters were also sent to Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who is spearheading efforts to resolve the Macedonia name row.

- Break the deadlock -

The dispute with Macedonia has festered for decades despite numerous UN-mediated talks to resolve the dispute.

Greece considers the name "Macedonia" to be part of its own cultural heritage, as it is also the name of a historic Greek province that was the core of Alexander the Great's ancient empire.

Athens thus seeks guarantees that the use of the name by its neighbour implies no claim to parts of its own territory.

Because of Greece's objections, Macedonia in 1993 joined the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

To break the deadlock, longterm UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has now proposed several alternative names in Macedonian, including "Republika Nova Makedonija" or the "Republic of New Macedonia".

Tsipras' government says it is ready to accept a composite name that will establish a clear distinction from Greek Macedonia.

A resolution of the issue is needed before Macedonia can join NATO or the EU.

Greece in 2008 threatened to veto Macedonia's NATO entry. Skopje subsequently took the issue to the International Court of Justice, which said Athens had been wrong to block its land-locked neighbour's aspirations.

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