June 6, 2018 / 9:06 PM / 15 days ago

Thousands protest in northern Greece over Macedonia name issue

ATHENS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands rallied in northern Greece on Wednesday to protest against a possible compromise solution to a long-running row between Athens and Skopje over the ex-Yugoslav republic’s name.

Protesters wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration against the use of the term "Macedonia" in any solution to a dispute between Athens and Skopje over the former Yugoslav republic's name, in the northern town of Pella, Greece, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

Protesters staged separate rallies in about 23 northern Greek cities. They held banners reading “Macedonia is Greek”, “Respect our history” and waved Greek flags.

“Macedonia is our soul! There is only one Macedonia and it is in Greece, where King Phillip and Alexander the Great were born,” said one of the rally speakers in Pella city, adding Greeks would never accept another country was called Macedonia.

The decades-old row has blocked Macedonia’s hopes of joining NATO and the European Union.

Protesters wave Greek national flags and shout slogans during a demonstration against the use of the term "Macedonia" in any solution to a dispute between Athens and Skopje over the former Yugoslav republic's name, in the northern town of Pella, Greece, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

Greece objects to the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name Macedonia, arguing that it, along with contentious articles in Skopje’s constitution, could imply territorial claims over its own northern region of the same name. Macedonians do not want to change the name of their country.

The two countries resumed negotiations last year and are scrambling to reach a deal in the coming weeks, before an EU summit in late June and a NATO summit in mid-July.

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The row dates back to 1991, when the small but strategically placed country peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia. Because of Greek objections, it was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 with the provisional name Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia.

Athens says a compromise could include a compound name with a geographical or chronological qualifier, and be the only name used for the country domestically and internationally.

The two states are under pressure to resolve the dispute, as Western countries see the integration of Balkan countries into the EU and NATO as a way of improving the region’s stability.

But the issue has struck a chord in both countries and led to big protests in Greece, which is emerging from a debt crisis, earlier this year.

Several thousands rallied in Skopje on Saturday to protest over the issue and to demand an early election because of the poor state of the economy.

Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas, Editing by William Maclean

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