Clashes between police and a group of masked protesters left several injured in Athens yesterday as tens of thousands demonstrated against a name change deal with neighbouring Macedonia that the Greek parliament is due to ratify in days.
The violence flared as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attempts to face down a political storm over his championing of a landmark agreement with Macedonia aimed at ending a 27-year dispute with Athens over the country’s name.
Police estimates put the number of demonstrators at 60,000 at 1200 GMT, while organisers said 100,000 people had arrived for the rally, with hundreds of buses bringing demonstrators, especially from the region of northern Greece that also claims the Macedonia name.
Ten police were injured in the protests, according to the Greek citizens’ protection ministry, while a first aid station said two protesters were hospitalised with breathing difficulties.
Scuffles broke out after about 30 masked youths tried to force the closure of the parliament building, throwing stones and other projectiles.
Riot police responded with volleys of tear gas, dispersing the crowd outside the legislature.
The masked youths then set upon journalists at the scene, smashing the equipment of photographers and cameramen, according to an AFP reporter.
According to the government “the incidents were provoked by extremists, members of the Golden Dawn, who attempted to enter parliament”.
“They attacked police with bits of wood and clubs, sending dozens of wounded to the hospital,” said a statement from Tsipras.
A wide range of Greek political parties, from the far-right Golden Dawn to the Socialists, oppose the accord to rename Macedonia the Republic of North Macedonia.
The accord, signed by the two governments, unblocks the ex-Yugoslav republic’s desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and the European Union once it is ratified by Greece’s parliament.
However, it could nonetheless be approved by the required 151 deputies in the 300-seat parliament in the coming days.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has sought to accelerate the country’s bid to join the EU and Nato and to work on resolving the decades-old name dispute with Greece.
Greece had agreed that until the name dispute is resolved, its northern neighbour, with a population of about 2mn, could be referred to internationally as “FYROM” – Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
That is the name under which it was admitted to the United Nations in 1993.
Flag-waving demonstrators had created a sea of blue and white on Syntagma square near the parliament, while much of the city centre was closed to traffic and some metro stations shut as a precaution.
“There is only one Macedonia, the Greek Macedonia,” read a sign in Greek and English held by Christina Gerodimoun, in her 30s, at the protests.
“This government is a government of traitors,” she said in reference to a coalition led by Tsipras, who brokered the deal with Macedonian counterpart Zaev in June.
“We cannot stomach this deal, to give away our Macedonia, our history,” said pensioner Amalia Savrami, 67, as she waved a large Greek flag on Athens’s Syntagma Square. “Macedonia is Greek, period.”
Macedonia declared independence in 1991, avoiding the violence that accompanied much of the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Many Greeks believe the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim over their country’s own northern region of that name.
For most Greeks, Macedonia is the name of their history-rich northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.
The crowd was monitored by nearly 2,000 police, equipped with drones and helicopters, a police source said.
Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name 10 days ago.
However, for the deal between the two leaders to go through, the change must also be approved by Greek lawmakers.
Tsipras termed the agreement a “historic step” towards normalising relations between the two countries.
He urged “progressive forces” to support the name change, in an interview with Avgi, a daily published by his Syriza party.
Tsipras’s ruling coalition fell apart over the deal a week ago, but he then narrowly won a vote of confidence, setting the stage for parliament to vote on its ratification.
Although political parties did not officially take part in the demonstration, a number of legislators turned up to express their individual positions, and Golden Dawn’s website urged party members to attend.
“I came out of patriotic duty,” conservative representative Fotini Arabatzi from the northern district of Serres told Skai radio.
Former Greek premier Antonis Samaras said the protest was “a demonstration for democracy, for Greece and for our rights”.
Settling the issue would be hailed as a success by Tsipras, whose left-right coalition came to power in 2015.
“The Prespes accord is a historic step not only for the two countries and the broader region, but for Europe as a whole. It cements relations of friendship, co-operation and stability,” Tsipras told yesterday’s Avgi newspaper.
United Nations diplomat Matthew Nimetz, who has mediated talks between the two countries, said he looked forward to Greece’s ratification of the accord after FYROM delivered on related constitutional amendments.
“As in the past, the UN remains committed to working with the two parties in finally resolving the difference between them,” he said in a statement.
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