Greek protests against Macedonia's name and full circle of Greek tragedy

Photo: EPA

On 21 January 2018, tens of thousands of people rallied in the northern coastal Greek city of Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in the country, against a UN-sponsored compromise with the neighboring Republic of Macedonia. According to the police, about 90 thousand people attended the rally, but some estimates claimed the total number of demonstrators at 300,000, including far-right leaders, Greek diaspora groups and clerics, many coming from other parts of Greece. They voiced their opposition to the negotiations and against any compromise name for their northern neighbor that would include the term "Macedonia," arguing it would hurt their national interests. The name dispute focuses on Greece's insistence that use of the word "Macedonia" implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

They carried Greek flags and banners saying "Macedonia is Greek," sang the Greek national anthem, also the anthem of Greek Macedonia, and chanting the slogan "There is only one Macedonia and it is Greek." The rally was organized by a far-right movement from northern Greece, mostly made of opponents to the Greek government led by Alexis Tsipras's political party Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left). Although hard-line clerics attended the protest, it was not officially supported by the Greek Orthodox Church, which is seen as a big player in the Greek political life. Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymos, after a meeting he had this week with Tsipras, said that he is not going to support any of the upcoming protests, as he has "confidence in the Greek government to handle our national issues."

Two weeks later, on 4 February, an even larger protest occurred in the capital city Athens. More than 100,000 protesters from across Greece converged on Athens' main square, hundreds of buses brought protesters in from around the country, while more people arrived on ferries from the islands. Police officials estimated the attendance at 140,000, and organizers claimed 1.5 million were at the rally. Chanting "Hands off Macedonia!" and "Macedonia belongs to Greece!" the protesters converged on Syntagma Square, in front of the Greek parliament, using a crane to raise a massive Greek flag over the square. White-and-blue flags fluttered above, and throngs of demonstrators wearing traditional Macedonian garb marched in anger. "Blood, honor, Golden Dawn," the far-right demonstrators chanted, waving burning torches in the air and burning Macedonian flags.

About 700 left-wing and anarchist protesters set up a counter-demonstration nearby, bearing banners calling for Balkan unity. "Macedonia belongs to its bears," read one banner. "In Greece, Turkey and Macedonia, the real enemy is in the banks and the ministries," the anti-fascists chanted in unison. Others burned the Golden Dawn flag, taunting nationalist demonstrators who were cordoned off by heavily-armed riot police. Dozens of policemen were deployed to keep the two demonstrations separate. Still, the far-right protesters lit an anarchist squat on fire. Assailants later vandalized a Holocaust monument. Before the rally in Athens, activists carried out security patrols to protect dozens of squats in the city center from potential attacks. Nasim Lomani, an activist at the City Plaza squat, which provides residence to upwards of 350 refugees and migrants, said extra security precautions were taken. "All the squats are ready to protect themselves in case of any fascist attack," he told the media. "There are fascists coming from all over Greece so we have to be careful."

A political dispute over the use of the name "Macedonia" is over a century old. Although it has roots in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, and was an issue in Yugoslav–Greek relations since World War II, the current dispute was reignited after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the newly gained independence of the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia in 1991. Using historical arguments and irredentist concerns, Greece opposes the use of the name "Macedonia" by the Republic of Macedonia without a geographical qualifier such as "Northern Macedonia." As millions of ethnic Greeks regionally identify themselves as Macedonians, Greece further objects to the use of the term "Macedonian" for the neighboring country's largest ethnic group and its language. The Republic of Macedonia is also falsifying its historical heritage and appropriating symbols and figures that are historically considered part of Greek culture.

Since the early 1990s, it has been an ongoing issue in bilateral and international relations. This is not the first time that Greeks rally against their neighbors' name. In February 1992, a massive protest in Thessaloniki, declaring that "Macedonia is Greek," gathered an estimated crowd of one million people. The Republic of Macedonia, which was admitted into the United Nations in 1993 as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), accepted the provisional term but rejects its neighbors' claim to hold an exclusive right to the name. The dispute has prevented Skopje from completing its accession into the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia's NATO entry and has also continued blocking the start of Macedonia's EU accession talks, despite several positive annual reports from the European Commission on the country's progress.

The recent protests in Greece come as Skopje and Athens in December rebooted UN-sponsored talks on their dispute after three years of stalemate. Zoran Zaev, the present Prime Minister of Macedonia, has expressed his willingness to rename the sites and bring down the monuments that have sparked outrage in Greece. Two countries have agreed to intensify talks in early 2018, expressing optimism that a compromise solution can be reached in the first half of this year, so that Macedonia can join NATO at the July summit of the alliance. The US and the EU have welcomed the renewed talks. They are seen as key backers of the mission to find a solution that would both secure Macedonia's Western integration while also limiting Russian influence in the Balkans.

Now, who is right in the whole story? The Republic of Macedonia, the Greek government, the far-right protesters, the far-left counter-protesters? Everyone, and no one. From a historical point of view, arguments are indeed on a Greek side. However, if we replace Macedonia with Azerbaijan, and Greece with Iran, we get the identical situation regarding political history and nomenclature. There's only one difference, no naming dispute, or protests. Numerous other examples exist, although not identical, but still very similar. Instead of focusing on current issues and without vision to solve them, the Greek far-right prefers to lead the meaningless historical battles and invoke past glories. On the other hand, the far-left counter-protesters are correctly pointing out the true problems, namely the international banksters. The Greek economy still hasn't recovered from the government-debt crisis after more than ten years and despite promises from the far-left Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to act against the international financial mafia, very little has been done. In fact, his recent warming relations with Macedonia, although positive in the sense of bilateral relations, represents only the obedient executing of NATO/EU orders. Here's where the circle of Greek tragedy ends.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.