Nick Malkoutzis via Macropolis | Tens of thousands of people protested in Athens on Sunday in what was the largest rally the Greek capital has seen for some time. They were there to send a message regarding the meaning of a Greek word: Macedonia.
Their concerns (mainly that this word not be used by Greece’s northern neighbour, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)) may seem bizarre to many foreigners, and even some Greeks. However, many of those who took part in Sunday’s demonstration believe they have grounds to be worried.
Many of the people living in the northern Greek region of Macedonia identify closely with its ancient symbols and rich history and have perceived a threat from the north since Yugoslavia’s break-up. Also, descendants of many Greek refugees who were expelled in the most barbarous circumstances from Asia Minor and the Black Sea live in the area. These families have an ingrained fear of someone else coveting their land, being uprooted and losing what they have.
The current context must also be taken into account. The government’s popularity has nosedived since 2015, scepticism about the future is extremely high and the economy has yet to take off. This creates a climate of mistrust and is not the most conducive backdrop against which to solve what has been one of the country’s top diplomatic challenges for more than a quarter of a century. Of course, it is not likely that there will be a perfect moment for either side to forge an agreement as the many missed opportunities over the last years have emphasised.
Another cause of suspicion is the behaviour of previous governments in Skopje, which have sought to claim symbols and personalities, such as the Vergina Sun and Alexander the Great, that are associated with Ancient Greece and whose sources lie within the borders of modern Greece. This has exacerbated the feeling among many Greeks that darker motives lurk across the border and have overshadowed changes to the neighbouring country’s constitution to address concerns about any territorial ambitions.
However, the provocations from nationalists in FYROM have also created space for extreme voices in Greece. Tapping into the Greek penchant for conspiracy theories, the local variety of nationalists have talked up the threat from a country with a fifth of the population of Greece, economic output that is equivalent to that of the Peloponnese and which places twelfth out of 126 countries on the Misery Index. They have fed people stories of plots involving the USA, hydrocarbons, the port of Thessaloniki and more.
Sadly, this was in evidence for the Athens rally. One of the organisers called for FYROM to be annexed by Greece if it wants to keep the name Macedonia, while others accused George Soros of trying to harm Greece’s interests. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn also made its presence felt before and during the event without the organisers or anyone else who had backed the demonstration, including New Democracy, making it clear they were not welcome there.
Ageing composer Mikis Theodorakis, an emblematic figure for Greece’s left and one of the first people that Alexis Tsipras met when he became prime minister, was also brought onto the stage in Syntagma Square on Sunday to speak of a plan to carve up the Balkans and to accuse the government of being “ethno-nihilists” and left-leaning fascists. The 92-year-old has form for being controversial on foreign policy issues, particularly in relation to the USA and Israel. Also, despite holding a “friendship” concert in Skopje in 1997 and arguing that Greece’s neighbour should not have “exclusive” use to the name Macedonia, Theodorakis attacked the New Democracy government in 2008 when it declared itself ready, following consultation with other parties domestically, to accept a composite name.
Nevertheless, the sight of him addressing Sunday’s rally and expressing such views was particularly galling for leftists and anyone who believes in the idea of growing old gracefully. This dread was compounded by the praise he received from Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was present at the demonstration with many of his supporters.
This did not stop several New Democracy officials and commentators in the media from lauding Theodorakis for his presence and his attack on “leftist fascism.” Presumably, the latter is a particular form of political ideology that is extremely brutal but at the same time allows tens of thousands of people to protest freely in the streets of its biggest cities, where they are free to say or chant whatever they want. It would also be interesting to go back to check what the same politicians and journalists were saying about Theodorakis when he launched the anti-austerity movement Spitha (Spark), advocated a return to the drachma and urged Greeks to vote “no” in the referendum on the third bailout in 2015.
The Church of Greece also participated in the demonstration even though its head, Archbishop Ieronymos stated less than a month ago that it is not an appropriate time to hold protests and that consensus should prevail. The man of the cloth proved not to be a man of his word. Ieronymos abandoned this position after some of his leading bishops, including the uncompromising Anthimos of Thessaloniki, ignored his call for moderation and took part in the first rally. Ieronymos subsequently met with the rally organisers and gave his blessing to the Athens demonstration, where the church played an important role in boosting the attendance.
Sunday’s denouement came when a monk from the semi-autonomous Mount Athos monastic community called for Greece to take back its lost lands, such as Istanbul. It was a reminder that irredentism also exists in Greece and that here, too, it is represented by a minority that should not be allowed to dictate the terms of the discussion. Mostly, though, it served to highlight how some Greeks are being whipped into a frenzy by people who have no care for their concerns other than the extent to which they can exploit them.
This brings us to the stance taken by New Democracy. As was the case following the first rally over the Macedonia issue in Thessaloniki a couple of weeks earlier, conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis issued a recorded message in the afternoon, once it was clear that the attendance at the demonstration was substantial (140,000 according to the police, much more according to organisers).
However, the die was cast after the Thessaloniki demonstration, when Mitsotakis decided that he had no interest in reaching any consensus with the government over the name issue and insisted it would have to be resolved “at some other juncture.” The opposition leader has laid the blame for this breakdown firmly at the feet of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. We will come to this shortly, but one of the main driving forces behind Mitsotakis’s hardline stance is his fear that the Macedonia issue could split his party. In fact, New Democracy vice president Adonis Georgiadis claimed on Sunday that by opening talks with FYROM, Tsipras’s goal was to divide the conservatives. The Thessaloniki rally was followed by much speculation about the creation of a new right-wing part along the lines of the Italian Lega Nord.
In all his recent comments on the subject, Mitsotakis has tried to turn the issue into one of trust in the government, arguing that Greek voters do not have faith in the coalition to negotiate a good deal. Admittedly, Tsipras’s track record in negotiations, with the deliberations between Athens and its lenders in 2015 being the prime example, is disastrous. However, the argument that the main opposition party can dismiss the outcome before talks with Skopje have reached any conclusion do not sit well with the party’s position on the issue for more than a decade.
The government has indicated that it is negotiating over a composite name with FYROM, which is what New Democracy had aimed for until now. When it was in power between 2004 and 2009, the conservative government accepted that Macedonia would appear in one form or another in its neighbour’s name. “In 2007, the Greek government made an important gesture officially accepting a composite name that includes the term “Macedonia”,” United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz told Kathimerini in a 2011 interview. “It wasn’t easy and should be appreciated as a contribution to the process of resolving the issue.”
For Mitsotakis to now side with protesters who are demanding that FYROM should not be allowed to use the term “Macedonia” in any form is hypocritical and a kolotoumba (somersault) of the type that he and his party has ridiculed Tsipras over many times. He adopts this position knowing that Greece will find itself in a weak position if FYROM’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev decides at the July NATO summit to make another bid to join the military alliance. In 2008, Athens exercised its veto to prevent Skopje from joining after a failure to reach a solution on the name issue. Three years later, the International Court of Justice found that Greece had breached the terms of its 1995 interim accord with FYROM by blocking its entry into NATO.
Zaev is looking towards membership of NATO and the European Union as ways of stabilising his weak coalition with two ethnic Albanian parties (he and his colleagues were attacked by nationalists in Skopje last year) and to ward off Russian influence in the country. This has encouraged Zaev to seek a solution to the longstanding name dispute with Greece.
Of course, this does not mean Athens has to bend over backwards to accommodate him. Also, Zaev has to prove that he is genuinely committed to the process and willing to do more than just rename Alexander the Great airport in Skopje and one of the city’s main roads. There is still a real possibility that no settlement will be reached because of limitations in Skopje, where Zaev has to overcome the widespread influence of nationalist VMRO-DPMNE after its long stint in power, rather than Athens. However, circumstances mean that Greece has an opportunity to reach common ground on this issue and, given its recent history, Athens cannot be the one to ignore the process or bring it to a halt. To argue that this effort will have to wait for another juncture is a cop out and ignores the fact that Greece and its FYROM have suffered a considerable cost for each opportunity that has been spurned in the past.
If Mitsotakis wants to show that he is a suitable future prime minister, he cannot ignore this. Turning his back on the process and tending only to his own flock marks him out as a parochial politician. Worse, his approach is giving succour to the more populist elements within his own party. A number of party officials, for instance, have suggested that the presence of thousands of people on the streets strengthen Greece’s hand in the negotiations. This is the same drivel that the current government came up with in early 2015, when it backed public protests all the way up to the July referendum and created unrealistic expectations among citizens about how they could influence events and what the outcome would be.
One New Democracy MP, Sofia Voultepsi, claimed in a radio interview that Tsipras has agreed an under-the-table deal with Greece’s creditors for a debt haircut in return for “giving away Macedonia.” She did not clarify if this secret agreement involves the Greek region of Macedonia being ceded or just the name.
Mitsotakis had cultivated a moderate profile before launching a surprisingly successful bid to win the New Democracy leadership in late 2015. Some had hoped he would be the reformist, pro-market champion to succeed Tsipras. His biggest challenge, though, was never to unseat SYRIZA, which has done a fine job in undermining itself, but to achieve balance within his own party and to unite members behind his own vision.
Despite enjoying a huge lead in the opinion polls since 2016, Mitsotakis has invested most of his energy in fuelling people’s fears and very little in presenting something positive regarding his plans for Greece’s future. In the process, he has given ample room to populists within his own party, such as Georgiadis, to express themselves. This has gradually led to them, rather than him, setting the tone for the conservatives. His stance on the Macedonia issue is driven by his desire to appease this wing of the party, but he runs the risk of abdicating his own position. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, Mitsotakis is making himself a hostage to New Democracy’s right-wing.
Having done it once, this faction may now always be able to scare him into submission with the threat of losing some of the party’s traditional voters. Mitsotakis’s mission was to ensure that they bought into his vision and followed him, rather than the other way around.
Those that supported his leadership should have advised him against making this compromise, instead many of them have egged him on because their main concern is to get the current government out. This has made them blind to the dangers of the path Mitsotakis has gone down. They also seem to be oblivious to the amount of goodwill from outside Greece that the conservative leader has frittered away because of the choices he has made, especially on the name issue. As things stand, those who hoped for the emergence of a reformist hero from the centre-right can kiss those dreams goodbye.
Tsipras’s powers also seem to be deserting him. For the last few years, he was much better at tuning in to public opinion than his rivals. He had always been able to judge which way it was moving and how to shape it. With the Macedonia issue, he appears to have misjudged the mood.
From a political, as well as national, point of view it was wrong of him not to enter into discussions with the opposition parties before any new round of negotiations with FYROM began. In the past, it has always been the case that Greek prime ministers briefed their counterparts ahead of potentially momentous decisions. Even if his sole concern was self-preservation, Tsipras should have been interested in nipping in the bud any accusations of “negotiating in secret” or preparing to sell out to Greece’s neighbours.
His other major mistake was to allow his government to be scornful of protesters and those taking a hard line on the subject. For instance, the reaction from the Foreign Ministry to the Holy Synod’s intervention on the Macedonia issue last month was unnecessarily aggressive. The subsequent efforts by Tsipras to play the peacemaker have failed. Nevertheless, his government repeated the error in the way it responded to the first rally in Thessaloniki, which was dismissed as a gathering of extremists and other fringe elements by some ministers.
It should be clear that although some of the organisers and participants in the Thessaloniki and Athens demonstrations hold unpleasant views, both gatherings were too large to tar everyone who took part with the same brush. There are clearly many people that feel passionately about this issue and have certain concerns that mainstream politicians have not been able to address over the years. Ignoring them, or even worse treating them as “undesirables,” only heightens their fears and encourages them to rage against the system.
This makes it even more peculiar that the prime minister’s office should issue a statement on Sunday talking down the participation in the rally and suggesting a rift between Mitsotakis and former New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who attended the demonstration (even though Tsipras’s coalition partner Panos Kammenos says he will not support a solution containing the term “Macedonia). It appears that Tsipras and his advisers have no sense of the damage they are doing to their own cause by not acknowledging the concerns of thousands of people. This is a very strange approach from a party like SYRIZA, which profited so greatly from the anti-austerity protests between 2010 and 2015 and was not averse to tapping into nationalist sentiment itself.
Tsipras harnessed without reservation the momentum they created, even if this meant ignoring the far-right element sometimes present in such demonstrations, to make an unlikely bid for the Greek premiership. Perhaps power has made him oblivious to the way these dynamics work. It would be some irony if his failure to read the current situation triggers his downfall.
Beyond the failings of one leader or another, there is a broader theme here that should concern Greeks. The last decade has been immensely testing for the majority of citizens as a result of the economic crisis and the social pain it has caused. Just as Greece stands at the cusp of a potential recovery, albeit a slow one, and people have the opportunity to start thinking of a brighter future, society risks looking backwards and being divided again.
The government is not trying to build consensus, the opposition is only interested in short-term gains and their respective supporters are prepared to abandon every principle just to ensure the downfall of the other side. In more practical terms, if the Macedonia issue proves a trigger for deeper polarisation, Tsipras is likely to respond to Mitsotakis’s bid to appease the right-wing by ramping up the rhetoric on his side. This will only breed fanaticism and any interest in steering Greece out of the crisis and building on some of the achievements that have been made during previous years will be of little interest to those aiming solely to stir passion.
There is a real danger that the painful period Greece has been through, when the country’s failings were laid bare, will not have generated determination to progress or served as a time for catharsis but as the pre-cursor to something much worse and far more tragic. Over the past few weeks, Greece has been consumed by an issue that first arose 25 years ago. The way it is being dealt with suggests that the country has not moved on since then. This does not bode well for any hopes of advancing from the economic crisis.
So, while we argue over “Macedonia,” it would be wise to also consider the meanings of some other Greek words. Let’s start with hysteria, hypocrisy, hubris and tragedy.