Up to 6000 demonstrators waving Greek flags shouted “Greece, Greece, Macedonia” and “traitors” just ahead of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s opening speech at the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair. The protests turned violent when some 100 people detached from the main crowd and tried to attack City Hall and throw rocks. The police—deployed in the thousands beforehand in anticipation of any such disturbances—quickly responded with tear gas and stun grenades, to which some demonstrators returned fire with more projectiles, laser pointers, fireworks, flaming bins, and harsh signs like “killuminati” and “no new world order”. The violent protests occurred alongside anti-austerity demonstrations staged by 6000 pro-communist unionists and 7000 participants from other trade unions. The latter two reportedly occurred without incident.
The hostile environment manifested in reaction to the Prespa deal signed this June between Athens and Skopje that will see the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) renamed to Republic of North Macedonia. While this deal is only preliminary and must be confirmed by both a referendum that will be held in Skopje on September 30 and a Greek parliamentary vote early 2019, thousands of Greek and Macedonian nationalists have expressed profound discontent.
This issue and the compromise it requires is deeply sensitive for both groups. Greece’s northern province of Macedonia is also the heart of Alexander the Great’s ancient kingdom. Greeks fear the deal will enable Skopje to lay territorial claims over its province of Macedonia as well as coopt their cultural heritage. These tensions form the basis of the decades long name dispute that saw Athens veto its neighbor’s bid to join NATO and the European Union in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Many Greeks vehemently oppose any title that includes ‘Macedonia’ whereas Macedonians maintain “Macedonia, we won’t give up the name.”
Several high-level politicians and representatives salute the agreement as a milestone in what was otherwise considered turbulent bilateral relations between Greece and FYROM. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini claims it as a solid step towards regional conflict resolution. United States President Donald Trump sent a written message to FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov saying, “The agreement and Macedonia’s membership in NATO will bolster security, stability, and prosperity throughout the entire region.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also released a statement urging Macedonians to facilitate a deal with Greece in order to secure membership of both NATO and the European Union.
Thessaloniki should act as a “cultural bridge, not a fence,” maintains PM Tsipras. But it is clear this historic initiative will continue to face fierce domestic resistance on both sides that may take the form of more violent protests. Additionally, so far polls indicate FYROM citizens are in favour of the name change but it is uncertain whether the turnout will meet the required 50 percent threshold. Regardless of the obstacles and possible delays for ratification, both countries must respect the civil right of its citizens to demonstrate and facilitate the agreement as peacefully and democratically as possible.
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