Thousands of people converged in central Athens on Sunday to protest the inclusion of the word “Macedonia” in a compromise between Athens and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name though turnout was far below what organizers had hoped for.
According to police estimates, some 140,000 people joined the protest. Organizers, however, put the turnout closer to 1 million people.
The office of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras noted that the rally drew thousands of people as anticipated but came nowhere near the “earth-shattering” millions predicted by organizers and opposition conservative officials. “Their hopes to exploit the demonstration for political gain were dashed,” a statement by the premier’s office said.
In a statement on Twitter, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that citizens had “expressed their anxiety and lack of trust in a government that did everything to divide Greeks on a crucial national issue.”
People arrived in central Athens on buses and ferries from all corners of the country, meeting in Syntagma Square where organizers had used a crane to erect a huge Greek flag.
Right-wing MPs and clerics joined farmers, pensioners as well as young Greeks in a large crowd outside Parliament. Members of the extreme-right Golden Dawn were also in attendance.
In an emotional speech to demonstrators, respected composer Mikis Theodorakis, the main speaker at the rally, called on Greeks to be patriots and defend their country’s interests.
“There is only one Macedonia,” he said. “It is, was and will always be Greek.” In an apparent dig at the leftist-led coalition, Theodorakis also hit out at “left-wing fascism.”
Despite its size the rally was mostly peaceful, thanks largely to some 20,000 police officers who were deployed across the capital.
Self-styled anarchists, who organized a counterdemonstration a few blocks from the main rally in Syntagma Square, briefly clashed with police who fired tear gas to disperse them.
Earlier in the day, an anarchist group claimed responsibility for vandalizing Theodorakis’s home on the eve of the rally, accusing him of supporting “nationalistic and patriotic riffraff.”
Tensions have peaked in recent days in United Nations-buffered negotiations aimed at resolving a longstanding dispute between Greece and FYROM.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias hit out at the UN’s special envoy in the dispute, who said he believed Greece was “not denying the identity” of the people of FYROM.
“I clearly and sternly stressed that it is not within his competence to talk about what Athens’s policy is, much less to describe it incorrectly,” Kotzias said.
Kotzias has said he is working on a draft document that would provide the basis of bilateral talks.
The document, which would set out Greece’s proposals for a compound name solution and broach its concerns about irredentist references in FYROM’s constitution, is to be submitted to government officials in FYROM in due course.