THESSALONIKI, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Greeks in the northern city of Thessaloniki gathered on Sunday for a protest against the use of the word “Macedonia” in any solution to a row between Athens and Skopje over the name of the former Yugoslav republic.
It will be the first big protest in Greece since the two countries agreed this month to renew efforts to settle the 25-year old dispute. Organisers said they expected tens of thousands of people to turn out on Sunday and more rallies are planned in northern Greece this week.
Macedonia’s attempts to join NATO and the European Union have been blocked by Greece, which says the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim over its own northern region of that name, which includes the city of Thessaloniki.
Until the row is resolved, Athens has agreed that the country can be referred to internationally as “FYROM” (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), the name under which it was admitted to the United Nations in 1993.
Talks between the two countries’ chief negotiators this week, mediated by United Nations’ diplomat Matthew Nimetz, did not produce concrete results but some name suggestions were put forward for negotiation, according to local media.
“There is only one Macedonia and it is Greek,” protesting groups said on videos uploaded on the internet. The main rally was due to begin at 1200 GMT.
Macedonia, which has a population of about 2 million, declared independence in 1991, avoiding the violence that accompanied much of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who took power last May, pledged to accelerate the country’s bid to join the EU and NATO and to work on resolving the name dispute.
Settling the issue would be hailed as a success by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose left-right coalition first came to power in January 2015. So far, the issue has strained relations with his coalition ally, the right-wing Independent Greeks party.
“It’s totally groundless historically and absurd to seek the exclusivity of Macedonia,” Tsipras told Sunday’s Ethnos newspaper.
“But it is not unreasonable to have the term ‘Macedonia’ included in a compound name, with either a geographical or a chronological qualifier, for all uses, to make absolutely clear that nobody claims other people’s land or history.”
A poll last week showed that a majority of Greeks do not want “Macedonia” used in any solution. (Reporting by Vassilis Triandafyllou and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Michele Kambas and Susan Fenton)