Prespes Agreement ratification enters final stretch

EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU

A protester holds a Greek flag outside parliament during clashes with riot policemen during a rally against the Prespes agreement between Athens and Skopje regarding the name 'Northern Macedonia' for the Balkan country, at a rally in Syntagma Square, Athens, January 20, 2019.

Anti-Prespes Agreement rally triggers violent official response


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The Greek side’s ratification process for June’s Prespes Agreement which seeks to resolve the Name Dispute between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM is now moving forward with a vote expected by the end of this week, probably late Thursday, and ultimate approval now appears likely.

A massive and largely peaceful protest on Sunday triggered a violent response from the government which resulted in a rally closed by a tear gas serenade. Violent splinter groups — likely the usual crop of local anarchists — came to the rally looking to create problems and largely succeeded. On the day after, the Greek political scene is a confused web of shifting small party dramas and temporary alliances.

Rally marred by senseless violence

The massive January 20 anti-Prespes Agreement rally was a victim of the same numbers game as was seen at last year’s Macedonia name rally, well before the deal was signed, with the added touch of heavy police tear gas discharges. This year, police low-balled the number of rally participants at roughly 60,000, while organizers said it exceeded 150,000.

What is clear is that slightly fewer attended than last year as the weather this year was somewhat worse than in February 2018. At the time of the rally, the police estimates put the crowd at 140,000, while the organisers estimated that some 500,000 people had attended the demonstration. Another factor is that most Greek retail establishments, rarely open on Sundays, were open January 20 to mark the start of the country’s special sales period.

Much of the rally was dominated by the same “Macedonia is (only) Greek” theme as was seen last year, but this year all demanded a referendum on the subject. A number of speakers called for the resignation of President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in order to press the SYRIZA minority government to call a referendum and/or snap elections.

Greek police claim more than 25 riot police officers were injured during the disturbances, which centered around the parliament building, opposite Athens’ Syntagma (Constitution) square. The Speaker of Greece’s parliament, Nikos Voutsis, revealed there was a generalized attempt to enter the building from five different points.

Extensive use of tear gas was sharply criticized by the rally’s organizers and opposition members, who said the aim was to disburse a largely peaceful protest against the government’s plans to ratify the agreement.

The office of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras directly blamed members of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn, “citing masked thugs throwing rocks and using clubs to attack police and send dozens to the hospital.” Dozens of apparently random attacks on demonstration participants have been reported, simply a result of crossing paths with organized groups of thugs.

Main opposition party New Democracy issued the following statement: “Mr. Tsipras’ patchwork government showed today its darkest, most authoritarian side. Panicking by the wrath of Greek people and with no serious cause, they sprayed large quantities of chemicals to disperse the hundreds of thousands of citizens that gathered from all over Greece to demonstrate peacefully against the harmful Prespes Agreement. Madames Gerovassili and Papakosta should be ashamed of themselves and should resign today.”

Political scene shifting hourly as ratification work begins

Political support for a ratification vote appears to have strengthened over recent days and discussions on the ratification are beginning in the Parliamentary foreign affairs committee late Monday. A vote is expected by the end of the week, most likely late Thursday.

In addition to a number of deputies from the small and steadily shrinking “To Potami”, known as “The River” in English, party that Tsipras had long counted on to support SYRIZA for ratification, other centre-left politicians are stepping forward to announce their support, bringing the margin of passage up to 152-4, slightly higher than the 151 votes of confidence Tsipras received January 16. The status of To Potami’s parliamentary group is now in question as a result of a defection Monday, putting it below the threshold needed to retain its status.

Some of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) deputies that broke away from former party leader Panos Kammenos last week may not actually be needed to vote against their party’s core ideology in support of the deal, but this remains an open question.

The loose alliance of center-left parties called the Movement for Change (KINAL), with Greece’s former governing PASOK party at its core, is apparently splintering over the Prespes issue, and may ultimately yield new recruits for a center-left coalition of social democratic and fellow travelers that PM Tsipras is hoping to forge before the upcoming elections. On Sunday, Thanasis Theocharopoulos, leader of the now-miniscule Democratic Left party, announced his support for the Prespes Agreement and was ejected from the KINAL group. He could move quickly join To Potami to help save it, but that remains a guess.

Latest polls discouraging for Tsipras

Results of an opinion poll published Sunday, by the Marc polling firm, show that 66 percent of respondents were against the Prespes Agreement. As many expected, 67.4 percent of respondents said a snap general election is needed no later than May.

Greek polls are notoriously fickle, but these results confirm broader trends visible over 2018. Main opposition New Democracy scored 32 percent in terms of political party preferences, a number that in a general election would yield 158 deputies of 300 total. SYRIZA earned 23.1 percent of the total in the same poll.

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