Government on edge for ‘Macedonia’ protest in Athens

Government on edge for ‘Macedonia’ protest in Athens

With United Nations-mediated negotiations aimed at resolving a dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) over the latter’s name at a sensitive juncture, the government is bracing for Sunday's Athens rally protesting the use of the term “Macedonia” in a solution amid signs that the turnout will be significant. 

Around 1,500 buses have been chartered to bring demonstrators from the provinces to the capital where the rally is to begin at Syntagma Square at 2 p.m.

Most conservative New Democracy MPs are expected to attend. 

ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the party respects both those who do choose to attend and those who do not. “We respect all choices,” he said. Former conservative premier Antonis Samaras endorsed the demo, saying Sunday will be “a great day for the country.” 

The main speaker will be veteran Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who is to address the crowd in person rather than sending a video message as originally planned.

Speeches will also be delivered by three clerics representing the Church of Greece, which has backed the rally following initial reservations by Archbishop Ieronymos. 

The Greek Police plans to erect barriers to keep demonstrators at Syntagma apart from anarchists who are to stage their own counter-rally, starting at noon outside Athens University.

Large parts of the center will be gradually closed to traffic starting at 6 a.m., while the Syntagma, Panepistimio and Omonia metro stations will close at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, organizers have reportedly accepted a request by a nationalistic political movement comprising army veterans called the Patriotic Union-Hellenic Popular Rally (ELLAS) to “guard” the demonstration from anti-fascist groups and anarchists.

Among the “surveillance groups” to be deployed by ELLAS will be members of the ODEYO reserve commandos and the National Salvation Shield.

The government has played down the significance of the rally as talks between Greek and FYROM officials on the name dispute enter a critical phase. But authorities are expected to closely watch Sunday's rally and, sources say, may modify their approach.

Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos was cautious, defending citizens’ right to protest but highlighting the risk of valid concerns being exploited by “nationalist, far-right and bigoted forces.”

He reiterated that Greece is seeking three things in the talks: a composite name for all uses, changes to FYROM’s constitution and guarantees against any irredentist claims.

Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has said he is working on a draft document that would provide the basis of bilateral talks. In a sign of how tensions have peaked over the talks, Kotzias has received two threatening letters, it emerged on Friday.

Separately, Supreme Court prosecutor Xeni Dimitriou ordered an investigation into statements by a member of the anarchist group Rouvikonas, claiming that “blood will be shed” at Sunday's rally, which were broadly condemned as attempts at incitement.

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