Greek road trip: North Macedonia deal ‘last straw’ for angry voters

Thessaloniki, Greece - Five months after angry rallies in major cities against Greece's controversial name agreement with North Macedonia, the issue barely registers in the July 7 election campaign.

But the so-called Prespes Agreement between Athens and Skopje that renamed the former Yugoslav republic after a bitter 27-year dispute was a tipping point for many voters, especially in the Greek northern region of Macedonia.

"After the crisis, poverty, penury and unemployment, it was the last straw," says Christos Biglikoudis, a resident of Pella, northern Greece.

"The government betrayed us. They're selling out our homeland," says the 39-year-old labourer, standing in front of the cafe he was forced to shut down because of the economic crisis.

Behind him, on the town square, stands a statue of Alexander the Great, one of Greece's foremost military heroes.

Alexander was born in Pella, once the capital of the ancient Macedonian kingdom and today just across the border from North Macedonia.

What was ancient Macedonia today also includes parts of North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.

But to many in northern Greece, Macedonia is just Greek.

"People here are very angry. I cannot understand how people voted for Syriza," says Biglikoudis, referring to the leftist party of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who brokered the Prespes Agreement with his Skopje counterpart Zoran Zaev.

In European Parliament elections in May, Tsipras's party was defeated by nearly 9.5 points by the conservative New Democracy party, which strongly opposed the name deal as harmful to Greek interests.

In that campaign, Syriza lost voters across Macedonia, in some areas falling behind New Democracy by as many as 20 percentage points.

The debacle was compounded a week later, when New Democracy took all but two of Greece's regions in local elections.

Tsipras himself has freely admitted earlier that the Prespes Agreement -- which saw him and Zaev nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize -- was "damaging."

"There was political cost ... there were repercussions nationwide," he told state TV ERT in May.

Nikos Marantzidis, a pollster and professor of Balkan studies at the university of Macedonia, argues that the Prespes Agreement gave New Democracy a sorely needed "psychological and moral boost" after years on the defensive.

In the previous election in 2015, the conservatives had to defend themselves against accusations of "collaborating" and "betraying" Greece to its creditors by imposing austerity.

This time round, it is Syriza being accused of treason in these parts.

"They should be hanged," says Yiannis, a 70-year-old pensioner. "Someone will be found to carry this out, they will not get away."


- An unexpected winner -


Among it all, there was one unexpected result. The main apparent beneficiary of the Prespes Agreement was a new nationalist party, Greek Solution, which picked up 4.18 percent of the vote nationwide on its first showing, securing a European parliament seat.

Greek Solution is headed by Kyriakos Velopoulos, a former far-right lawmaker and journalist who later turned to TV sales.

Velopoulos, who is strongly pro-Russian and keeps a photo of Vladimir Putin in his office, has faced ridicule for peddling so-called "blessed" toothpaste purportedly made by Orthodox monks and letters allegedly written by Jesus Christ.

There has also been amusement over the fact that the fledgling party leader, who is balding, is also straight-facedly promoting hair loss lotion.

But the controversy hasn't hurt Velopoulos' appeal.

His party reached out on social media with patriotic rhetoric, and in some parts of northern Greece finished third in the European ballot with percentages near 8.0 percent.

Velopoulos has cast himself as an alternative to neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, formerly Greece's third-strongest party.

Golden Dawn's leadership is mired in a long-running trial over crimes allegedly committed by party members, among them the 2013 murder of an anti-fascist rapper.

"We want Greek patriots who are Golden Dawn voters to come to us. We would be proud if Greek Solution plays a part in wiping out Golden Dawn," says one of his candidates, gym owner and former taekwondo champion Babis Panagiotidis.

"A major part of the electorate that came to our party was opposed to the Prespes Agreement," he adds.

By Vassilis Kyriakoulis

Tens of thousands protest Macedonian accord in Athens (January 2019)