Thousands protest as Greek lawmakers debate Prespes deal

Thousands protest as Greek lawmakers debate Prespes deal

Thousands demonstrated in Greece’s main cities and on the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) Thursday against a historic deal to normalize relations with the Balkan country, a day before lawmakers were expected to narrowly approve the agreement.

Police said more than 2,000 protesters gathered outside Parliament in central Athens, as lawmakers debated the agreement which would end one the 27-year-long dispute, with FYROM renaming itself “Republic of North Macedonia” and Greece lifting objections to the country joining NATO.

The debate was extended until Friday to accommodate a large number of registered speakers, as tensions rose with opposition parties accusing the government of making unacceptable concessions to Greece’s small, landlocked Balkan neighbor.

Another 4,500 Communist Party supporters protested against the agreement in another part of Athens, while hundreds of people in northern Greece blocked the main border crossing to FYROM for hours. Another 3,000 were protesting the deal during two separate marches in Thessaloniki, while similar gatherings were held in other northern towns.

About 1,500 police were on duty in Athens, fearing a repeat of riots by far-rightists during a protest by tens of thousands outside parliament on Sunday, when extremists armed with petrol bombs, stones and clubs tried unsuccessfully to invade the grounds of the building.

The agreement, which FYROM has already ratified, has stirred patriotic sentiment and angered many in both countries, who argue it offers too much to the other side.

Polls show that at least two in three Greeks are against the agreement. Opposition is particularly fierce in the northern Greek region that is also called Macedonia, where critics claim it will sign away their national identity and a cultural heritage dating back to the glorious days of Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago.

Several lawmakers from the governing SYRIZA party, or others who have committed to backing the deal, elected in northern constituencies, have come under intense pressure – including arson attacks and death threats – to reject the deal in Friday’s vote.

Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura said she was one of the hate campaign victims.

“I have received photos of dead women, threatening phone calls, threatening messages on my cell phone and on the internet,” she said, urging her political opponents to speak out against the threats. “If anything happens to my family or myself, the blame will lie not only with the perpetrators but also those who incite them.”

On the Evzones border crossing into FYROM, hundreds of farmers and other local residents arrived in cars and blocked traffic despite a heavy police presence. Until the crossing reopened late Thursday, most traffic was diverted to two other border crossings.

“We came here … for this betrayal not to pass,” said Thomas Karytidis, president of a local farmers’ union.

The town of Polykastro, the closest to the border on the Greek side, shut down all municipal services for two hours in a symbolic show of opposition, while residents and schools held a protest outside the town hall.

“Flags are flying at half-staff, the [church] bells were ringing mournfully because we don’t want this deal to go through,” said Mayor Christos Gountenoudis.

In an attack potentially linked to the agreement, arsonists tried to set fire late Wednesday to the home of a lawmaker with the governing SYRIZA party in the northern town of Giannitsa. Nobody was injured, and the fire service said damage was minor.

The lawmaker, Theodora Tzakri, said her family had been at home at the time of the petrol bomb attack, which she blamed on far-right activists opposed to the deal with FYROM.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government is expected to gain the support of up to six opposition lawmakers it needs to get the required 151 votes in the 300-member parliament for the agreement to be ratified. He recently lost his parliamentary majority after his junior coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks party, pulled out of the government due to objections over the name deal.

Early Thursday, Communist Party protesters draped two giant banners opposing the deal over the walls of the ancient Acropolis. [AP]

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