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article imageSchoolchildren hold rival protests in Greece over Macedonia deal

By AFP     Nov 29, 2018 in World

Hundreds of schoolchildren took part in rival protests in Greece on Thursday over the country's name deal with Macedonia aimed at ending a three-decade dispute but which has sparked controversy.

A few hundred pupils demonstrated in Athens in response to a call by leftist groups backing the deal and opposed to a rival gathering by nationalist and far-right groups in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

Dozens of schools in northern Greece have been closed by sit-ins in opposition to the name deal with the former Yugoslav republic, a move blamed by the education ministry on neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

"Clearly Golden Dawn and other neo-Nazi groups are behind it," Eleni Zografaki, a senior member of the Greek teachers union OLME, told Athens municipal radio.

Under the accord, which Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev struck with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras in June, the Balkan state would rename itself North Macedonia. In exchange, Athens promised to stop blocking its entry into NATO and the EU.

Greece has argued the name is an encroachment on its own province called Macedonia.

Macedonia's parliament in October voted in favour of the change, part of a process that next requires a constitutional revision in Skopje.

The issue has divided Greece and its landlocked northern Balkan neighbour since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and efforts to resolve it have proven equally contentious.

Both Tsipras and Zaev have staked major political capital on the deal, despite strong objections in both countries.

Tsipras has been trying to hold his coalition government together ahead of elections scheduled to be held by next October at the latest, with his Syriza party trailing the opposition New Democracy conservatives.

However, there is speculation that there could be a ballot as early as May.

Tsipras' junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, have expressed strong opposition to the agreement, and Greece's foreign minister resigned last month in a cabinet spat over Macedonia.

Greece's northern province of Macedonia was the heart of Alexander the Great's ancient kingdom.

Many Greeks fear the deal will enable Skopje to lay claim to their cultural heritage, but Tsipras sees it as ending years of stalemate and helping both sides and the region move on.

The Macedonian government hopes the agreement will allow it to pursue membership of the European Union and NATO, securing its place in western Europe over Russian opposition.

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