ATHENS — Tens of thousands of people gathered in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, on Sunday to protest the inclusion of the word “Macedonia” in the name of the neighboring former Yugoslav republic amid talks by the two nations to resolve the longstanding dispute.
Drawing what the police estimated at 90,000 people, the rally was the first major protest since Greece and the Republic of Macedonia agreed to join United Nations-mediated talks this month to settle the 25-year disagreement. Organizers say further rallies are planned.
Many Greeks argue that the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim to a region in the north of Greece with the same name; Thessaloniki is its capital.
Greece has blocked attempts by Macedonia to join NATO and the European Union. NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told officials last week in Skopje, the Republic of Macedonia’s capital, that the name dispute with Greece must be resolved before the Balkan country can join the alliance.
Exploratory talks between representatives from both countries, mediated by the United Nations diplomat Matthew Nimetz, began last week. Leaked reports of the solutions being discussed led to vehement speculation and no shortage of nationalist rhetoric in Greece.
On Sunday, right-wing politicians joined Greek citizens waving flags. Some demonstrators wore traditional island clothing. Others dressed as Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek warrior king whose realm was centered in the region. Lawmakers from Greece’s extreme-right Golden Dawn party were in attendance, as were a handful of hard-line clerics.
Earlier in the day, Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki urged Greeks to join the rally. “Demonstrate, my brothers,” he told worshipers at a church in the northern city.
Although turnout was larger than expected, the crowd was a fraction of that in 1992, when around a million people took to the streets of Thessaloniki. Those protests came after the Balkan state broke away from Yugoslavia and named itself the Republic of Macedonia. After the upheaval in Greece, the country joined the United Nations in 1993 under the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The 1992 rally was backed by the Greek Orthodox Church, which distanced itself from Sunday’s demonstration, notwithstanding the presence of some radical clerics.
Last week Ieronymos II, the archbishop of Athens and All Greece, told Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that “what is needed now is not protests and cries, but national unity.”
Mr. Tsipras, who is expected to meet with his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, on the sidelines of a summit meeting next week in Davos, Switzerland, said in an interview with the center-left Greek newspaper Ethnos published on Sunday that he understood Greeks’ sensitivities over the name talks.
“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,” he said, “to make absolutely clear that nobody is claiming other people’s land or history.”
His junior coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, has a different view. Mr. Kammenos, who apart from leading the right-wing Independent Greeks party is also the country’s defense minister, has insisted that the word Macedonia must not be part of its neighbor’s name.
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