Under the brassy stare of an equestrian Alexander the Great statue, 3,000 people gathered near the ancient Greek ruler's birthplace Wednesday to demand that Greece takes a tough stance with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in talks over the neighboring country's name.
The peaceful rally in the northern village of Pella was the best attended of 25 events organized in provincial towns across Greece by hardliners opposing any use of the name Macedonia by the small republic to the north.
Alexander was born in the 4th century B.C. and ruled the ancient kingdom of Macedon, most of which later became the Greek province of Macedonia.
Since FYROM gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Greek government has insisted the name implies a territorial claim on its province.
"Respect history, respect Greece," read a banner at Wednesday's rally in the Pella village square, about a mile from the ruins of ancient Pella where Alexander was born. Another sign proclaimed, "You are born a Macedonian, you don't become one."
FYROM and Greece launched negotiations this year to end their 27-year name dispute, which has hampered the country's efforts to join NATO and the European Union.
FYROM's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said he is open to modifying his country's name. But a Greek official warned last week that prospects of a deal emerging within days were receding.
The FYROM government in Skopje denies it has designs on the Greek province. Athens says the name Macedonia also represents the ancient Greek heritage typified by Alexander, who started from northern Greece to carve out an empire reaching India.
Rally participant Eugenia Sarrigiannidou said she hopes the protest will harden Greeces official position in the negotiations.
"I don't think the negotiations are finished, because they can be affected by developments — such as our reactions," she said.
New names for the republic reportedly currently under discussion include New or Northern Macedonia.
Rally organizers reject any inclusion of the word Macedonia, and want any agreement to be put to a referendum in Greece — as FYROM's government has promised to do.
They enjoy the backing of the influential Church of Greece, with many priests and Sunday school children among the flag-waving crowd in Pella.
Teacher Vangelis Voskidis, 62, said attending the rally was "the least we can do for our country."
"I believe there is only one Macedonia, which is Greek," he said. "It is our duty to exert pressure so that the name Macedonia is not given to our neighbor."
Police prevented three FYROM TV journalists from covering the rally, citing fears for their safety. FYROM's foreign ministry had earlier warned its citizens to avoid rally venues.
Hardliners in both countries have held protests ever since the new push for a compromise got underway. More than 100,000 people attended a rally in Athens in February. [AP]