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Thousands protest as Greek lawmakers debate Macedonia deal

January 24, 2019
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Greek riot police chase the demonstrators opponents of Prespa Agreement outside the Greek Parliament in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Greek lawmakers are debating a historic agreement aimed at normalizing relations with Macedonia in a stormy parliamentary session scheduled to culminate in Friday vote. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
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Greek riot police chase the demonstrators opponents of Prespa Agreement outside the Greek Parliament in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Greek lawmakers are debating a historic agreement aimed at normalizing relations with Macedonia in a stormy parliamentary session scheduled to culminate in Friday vote. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands demonstrated in Greece’s main cities and along the country’s northern border Thursday against a deal to normalize relations with neighboring Macedonia, a day before lawmakers were expected to approve the agreement that would end a 27-year dispute over a historic name.

Police said as many as 2,500 protesters gathered outside parliament in central Athens as lawmakers debated a government deal that would lift objections to Macedonia joining NATO and potentially, the European Union, after the young country is renamed North Macedonia.

Protesters waved Greek flags and chanted “Hands off, Macedonia” while the session inside continued late in the night. A small number of people launched Molotov cocktails, rocks and flares at riot officers, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

The violence broke up the demonstration, and protesters drifted off, further discouraged by heavy rain. Police said they arrested 10 people and detained another 133 on suspicion of committing or planning acts of violence. A new protest has been called outside parliament Friday.

The agreement, strongly backed by western countries that want to limit Russian influence in the Balkans, has stirred patriotic sentiment, incensed nationalists and dismayed many in both Macedonia and Greece who think it gave away too much to the other side. Polls show that at least two in three Greeks are against it.

“Politicians come and go, but Macedonia will always be Greek,” said Thanassis Godis, a speaker at the main Athens rally who is from the northern town of Kavala. “Their country is based on a lie. Our struggle isn’t over.”

Opposition is particularly fierce in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, which borders the former Yugoslav republic that claimed the same name after winning independence in 1991. Critics claim the deal will sign away their Macedonian identity and a cultural heritage dating back to the glorious days of Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago.

The ratification vote in parliament originally was scheduled for Thursday. Debate was extended until Friday to accommodate a large number of registered speakers, as opposition parties accused the government of making unacceptable concessions to Greece’s small, landlocked Balkan neighbor.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged lawmakers to approve the agreement, already ratified by Macedonia’s parliament, saying it was the best possible deal after years of deadlock.

“Nationalism in the Balkans has led to disasters,” Tsipras said. “And I believe the time has come to escape nationalism.”

Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose conservative New Democracy party leads in polls ahead of a national election later this year, rejected the deal as a “national defeat.” He threatened to thwart Macedonia’s EU membership drive if his party triumphs with voters.

About 1,500 police officers were on duty in Athens, fearing a repeat of riots during a protest outside parliament on Sunday, when far-right nationalists armed with clubs, gasoline bombs and rocks tried to invade the grounds of the building.

On Thursday, about 4,500 Communist Party supporters protested peacefully against the Macedonia agreement in another part of Athens. At the Evzones border crossing into Macedonia, hundreds of farmers and other local residents blocked traffic with their vehicles for hours.

The town of Polykastro, the closest to the border on the Greek side, shut down all municipal services for two hours in a symbolic show of opposition.

“Flags are flying at half-staff, the (church) bells were ringing mournfully, because we don’t want this deal to go through,” said Mayor Christos Gountenoudis.

Several lawmakers from the governing Syriza party and others elected from northern constituencies who committed to backing the deal have faced intense pressure — including arson attacks and death threats — to reject the deal in Friday’s vote.

Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura said she was one of the targets.

“I have received photos of dead women, threatening phone calls, threatening messages on my cellphone and on the internet,” she said, urging her political opponents to condemn the threats.

Some protesters Thursday tried to march to the homes of two Syriza lawmakers in the northern towns of Katerini and Drama, but were stopped by police.

Also late Wednesday, arsonists tried to set fire to the home of another Syriza lawmaker in the northern town of Yiannitsa. Nobody was injured, and the fire service said damage was minor.

The lawmaker, Theodora Tzakri, said her family had been at home at the time of the petrol bomb attack, which she blamed on far-right activists opposed to the deal with Macedonia.

Tsipras’ government is expected to get support from a small number of opposition lawmakers in securing the 151 votes needed in the 300-member parliament for the agreement to be ratified.

He recently lost his parliamentary majority after his junior coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks party, pulled out of the government due to objections over the name deal.

The agreement will come into force once Greece ratifies it and then underwrites Macedonia’s NATO accession application.

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Costas Kantouris reported from Evzones, Greece. Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

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Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris

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