A massive rally in Syntagma square against the use of the term Macedonia by FYROM in Athens, Greece on February 4, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.On February 4, Greece took to the streets. This time, the issue wasn’t a bailout package, impending reforms or massive layoffs. It was simply a matter of preserving history; preventing FYROM ( the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) from laying claim to the legacy of Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Protesters were demanding that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did not make an agreement at the UN headquarters in New York which would allow for the neighbouring country to the north to include “Macedonia” in its name.
The dispute started in 1990 with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. What was then the Macedonian prefecture formed the parliament of the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia.” One of its aims was to unite all the Macedonian people under one state. This was later entrenched in the 1991 constitution in Article 5, which sought to protect "the rights of the portions of the Macedonian people, which live as an ethnic minority in neighbouring countries." The country became a member of the UN in 1993 and has been recognised by over 130 states.
Macedonia is a geographical area that, throughout history, has been ruled by many different ethnic groups. Its poster child, Alexander the Great, unified the different city-states of Greece in an empire, often through bloody wars. He was born in what is today Greece, even though there was no such thing at the time. His, the Romans’, the Ottomans’ and the Yugoslavians’ “Macedonia” included the territories of FYROM.
There are two distinct historical facts that must be recognised. Firstly, Alexander and his kingdom were more akin to the Greeks than the Slavs, the primary ethnic group in FYROM. Secondly, the land of FYROM has been called Macedonia for centuries. Arriving via these two facts at the same end destination, both nations refer to Macedonia in constructing their identity.
Greece vetoed FYROM’s accession to NATO at the 2008 Bucharest summit, stating that Article 5 of its constitution implied territorial expansion at Greece’s expense. The issue has hovered at the periphery of Greek public discourse over the crisis years. When Tsipras took a seat at the negotiating table, those opposed to his solution brought the decades-old issue to the forefront of their agenda. As the Financial Times wrote, if he settled the dispute, he hoped to become a “Bismarck of the Balkans.”
The first rally was held at Thessaloniki, the biggest city in Greek Macedonia on January 21. Police recorded 90,000 participants, whereas the organisers claimed 500,000. At the Athens rally, organisers claimed 1.5 million participants, whereas police counted 140,000. News outlets fell in line with their political affiliations in reporting the size of the crowd.
“Macedonia is Greek,” protesters cried at the rally. “I had shivers up my spine from the moment I arrived until I left. It was a peaceful, honest, apolitical gathering. I’ve never been a part of anything similar. I felt proud of Greece for finally waking up,” said one participant, Felicia Adamidou.
The country exited the bailout programmes in 2017, but the government was severely wounded in the process. SYRIZA’s and Tsipras’s approval ratings have plummeted. His opposition is using the dispute to deepen this negative sentiment.
The leader of New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is seen as a rising star of liberal politics in Greece. He noted a few days before the Athens rally that the “shadow state” of anarchist organisations who interfere with peaceful protests “must not be tolerated.”
Οι πολίτες εξέφρασαν την αγωνία και την έλλειψη εμπιστοσύνης τους σε μία κυβέρνηση που έκανε τα πάντα για να διχάσει τους Έλληνες πάνω σε ένα κρίσιμο εθνικό ζήτημα. Είναι προφανές πια ότι δεν εμπιστεύονται τον κ.Τσίπρα, τον κ.Καμμένο και τον κ.Κοτζιά να διαπραγματευτούν οτιδήποτε pic.twitter.com/wx6k5kjegf— Kyriakos Mitsotakis (@kmitsotakis) February 4, 2018
“Citizens expressed their frustration and lack of trust towards a government that did everything in its power to divide Greeks on a national issue,” he tweeted on the day of the rally. His party had supported a conciliatory solution that would allow for FYROM to include “Macedonia” in its name at least five times under the leadership of Antonis Samaras. His row during his presidency was with Golden Dawn, who sued him over the arrests of three Golden Dawn MPs. He smiled for the cameras and put on his best nationalist hat alongside Golden Dawn MPs at the rally.
The protests also provide a playground for street politics, an indispensable phenomenon of Athenian life. Anarchist group Rouvikonas, known for destroying property and raiding banks, announced that “Blood will be shed” at the Athens rally. They perceive it as right-wing fascism and nationalism. It is hard to argue with them when a Greek flag is hung by a crane over hundreds of thousands of protesters, carrying more Greek flags. Golden Dawn held a rally the night before the apolitical protest, at the same location. Members of Golden Dawn got aggressive during the apolitical protest and clashed with police.
As the Athens rally was drawing to a close, a team of 80 fascists attacked the self-organised community space "Embros." They threw rocks and glass bottles at the building and the people of "Embros" climbed to the rooftop and threw whatever they could find. On the day of the attack, they were finishing a photography exhibition with over 80 artists from many different backgrounds and were hosting community kitchen "Allos Anthropos" (Different Person) which provides food to local disadvantaged groups (refugees, homeless etc.) Witnesses claim that the riot police eventually broke the conflict up. But before the fight broke out they were advising them not to go near the building.
Those who attended the rallies are not Golden Dawn sympathisers, but it would be naïve to call the rallies apolitical. The dispute is a political tool for parties from all sides of the spectrum and is a clear indication of nationalist sentiment. The latter is galvanized to promote the former. It is of paramount importance that this reality is not hidden behind the politicians’ rhetoric. The same game is played across the border, in FYROM, except for them it hinders their participation in regional and defensive blocs.