The Greek people sent a strong message in Athens on February 4 that many will not countenance the use of a compound name including the word “Macedonia” in any eventual agreement with neighbouring FYROM/Macedonia. But the main challenge was targeted directly at Greece’s narrowly-ruling SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition, which had been hoping at the start of 2018 for a quick agreement on the Name Dispute with FYROM/Macedonia and a major foreign policy success to add to Greece’s expected emergence from creditor supervision later this year, heading into elections due by 2019.
The essence of the issue has become a numbers game, with the organizers trying to maximize attendance at the rally and the government doing its best to portray the event as having a disappointing turnout, meaning there is no public demand for input or for a referendum, and accordingly no policy changes need be factored into the negotiations after the demonstration.
It is rather doubtful that observers in foreign embassies, Skopje, or the UN will agree with what is seen as a Greek government attempt to “lowball” the number of attendees at 140,000, using official police estimates, as was done to minimize the estimated participation at the January 21 rally in Thessaloniki. On the other hand, the event organizers are claiming participation reached the 1-1.5 million range for the demonstration.
Citizens Protection Minister Nikos Toscas, relatively well known for his defense of police inaction around various Athens crisis spots over the last years, has been forced to spend February 5 publicly defending police methodology in producing the estimates, while his detractors claim police videos are falsified and have missing date information. Toscas went so far as to claim that the police calculate Athens Syntagma Square can hold no more than 35,000 demonstrators maximum.
Most observers agree the demonstration was substantially larger than any anti-austerity demonstration over the last 7 years, but an official admission that the attendance hit even the 500,000 level would have major implications for government policy and probably weaken ruling coalition parliamentarians’ resolve to support any deal through to ratification, or worse. Hence, any action to confuse the actual numbers has a deeper objective.
The rally was generally acknowledged as being both peaceful and well-organized, especially since so many out-of-Athens groups participated. By late afternoon February 4, sporadic episodes of violence requiring some use of tear gas were reported on the periphery of the event (no arrests) and in downtown areas such as Exarcheia, where anti-almost anything protestors routinely organise with impunity, especially since the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition came to power but even before.
Despite having his house vandalised by an anti-establishment group the day before the demonstration, aging anti-Junta hero, composer, and the rally’s keynote speaker Mikis Theodorakis leveled searing criticism at the current government coalition for appearing to accept the Nimetz proposals as a basis for a deal while also attacking “the leftist form” of fascism. Getting to the core issue, he demanded a referendum on any Name Dispute agreement which includes a composite name, which implies zero confidence, or even less, in the current government’s ability to negotiate an acceptable agreement and is generally seen by the government and the UN as a show-stopper.
Theodorakis’ demand for a role for the Greek people in resolving what is termed a “national issue” earned him massive criticism in pro-SYRIZA media as well as social media outlets in Greece, for allegedly becoming a turncoat and supporting nationalist interests (meaning he is not assisting the current government). In an early response to the demonstration, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotsias tweeted his intention to continue Name Dispute negotiations with a clear conscience.