Some 90,000 people took part in a right wing nationalist demonstration in Thessaloniki (Salonika) in northern Greece yesterday, according to police figures.
It was a national demonstration, with 500 buses bringing people in and delegations from as far as Crete, on a chauvinist basis demanding that the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia not be allowed to use the word “Macedonia” in its official name. That still has not been resolved in international bodies, though 100 states have recognised the state with that name.
It was a demonstration of the “deep right” spanning nationalist elites, with popular support, and the reactionary forces in Greece hailing back to the time of the Junta and before.
The powerful Orthodox Church had been pushing daily chauvinist agitation on the issue. While the archbishop in Athens formally disavowed the demonstration it is clear that lower down the bishops and priests mobilised. Friends report relatives going to church on Sunday and being called upon to attend.
There are echoes of the right wing campaign of 25 years ago. But it is far weaker than then, when the state essentially organised the protests and perhaps as many as a million demonstrated in Salonika.
The pressure to resolve the issue is in order to lift the Greek veto on Macedonia joining Nato. The right wing opposition New Democracy party had been looking forward gleefully to the issue splitting the government. The nationalist ANEL junior coalition partner says it will never accept the word Macedonia in the official title of the neighbouring country.
But the question is also dividing the right. The Syriza-led government is saying that all it is doing is putting forward the position which the then government of New Democracy’s Kostas Karamanlis approved in 2008 – with a name along the lines of Upper Macedonia.
That was rejected at the time by a highly nationalist and right wing Macedonian government – as Karamanlis had hoped. So he took it off the table and declared a Greek veto on Macedonia’s Nato membership.
Rising rivalry with Russian influence in the Balkans is now leading Nato and the EU to press hard for a resolution of the naming dispute to get Macedonia into Nato. And the incoming Bulgarian rotating presidency of the EU says it is looking to extend the Union into the western Balkans, putting more countries on the track to joining the EU and for Bulgaria itself to adopt the euro.
The current government of Macedonia has downplayed the rampant nationalism of its predecessor, signalling all sorts of compromises in order to pursue membership of the western institutions.
This all poses a problem for the right and New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis. How can it denounce a solution along the lines that were proposed by its own leader, Karamanlis, ten years ago and one which has the blessing of Nato and EU institutions?
New Democracy faces its own divisions, with its own hardened chauvinist wing associated with Antonis Samaras. It was he who led a split from New Democracy over two decades ago accusing it of betraying the nationalist cause over Macedonia by not being chauvinist enough.
The leader he split from was… Konstantinos Mitsotakis – father of the current one. Many years later he rejoined the party, just in time to win the leadership and defeat another Mitsotakis – the daughter of Konstantinos.
The issue has the potential to reopen very deep wounds and feuds. It is not the only problem on the right. Although the social base of the Church was partially mobilised, the rally on Sunday 21 January did not attract the mass of average “patriots”, but instead revealed the ugly face of the hard, militarist and pro-junta right.
The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn sensed an opportunity to try to recover some ground by presenting itself as taking up a national cause. Yet it faces difficulties. It said it would participate but not bring its banners and insignia, but just protesting as national citizens.
But that left the field open to an assorted ragbag of former generals and nationalist right wing political figures, chief among them former head of the armed forces Fangoulis Frangos. That was something of a humiliation for Golden Dawn: a party with a parliamentary fraction and claiming to be leaders of the nation reduced to random members of an audience addressed by other political currents of the far right.
Golden Dawn tried to recover some “honour” by desecrating the memorial to the Jewish inhabitants of Salonika who perished in the Holocaust. Another group of the fascistic right broke off at the end of the demonstration and burnt down a left wing squat serving as a social centre.
But for the broadly radical-right currents, the fact that Golden Dawn has been so isolated and discredited by the anti-fascist movement and ongoing trial as a criminal organisation means that it doesn’t play a useful role for them. Nor does it assist the idea being floated of launching a new far right formation, not neo-Nazi like Golden Dawn but inspired by some of the northern European and north American developments on the radical right scene.
Such a new formation, which various figures have been touting for over a year, would be a threat to Golden Dawn electorally.
But it might also eat into New Democracy’s base. It would certainly mark a reversal of the strategy by Mitsotakis and the mainstream conservatives to reunite all the forces to the right of centre behind him.
Instead of any prospect of a government which could exclude Syriza and the centre left (something not yet possible on the current party system and its share of the vote), it would mean a further fragmentation of the Greek political system.
Mitsotakis is desperate to avoid that; but equally desperate to present himself as a modern European leader, not a dinosaur like Samaras, who could take the place of Tsipras. New Democracy did not speak from the platform at the demonstration, but several of its MPs participated – as “ordinary citizens”.
We shall see how these tensions play out in the coming months. Some things are clear. From Northern Ireland in the furthest north west, to the Balkans in the south east, European historical questions that were meant to have been solved by EU and Nato expansion have been shown in this crisis merely to have been suppressed.
There is a return of History. In that context, we also know that the positions taken by the internationalist left in Greece over the Macedonian question in the 1990s, drawing on a tradition going back over a century, have been critical to resisting the right’s capacity to inflame and to use national chauvinism and antagonisms.
And lastly, the systematic effort to isolate and push back Golden Dawn means that for both it and the wider right, this new round of the Macedonian dispute is not the straightforward gain that they might have hoped.
Imagine no anti-fascist movement and no trial of Golden Dawn, and then what its capacity might be to hegemonise a “national issue” like this.
The Keerfa anti-fascist and anti-racist coalition put out a statement on Sunday night following the fascist violence associated with the rally. It says:
“The anti-fascist movement has the memory and experience to stop this preaching of hate. No matter how much effort the right wing and church circles put in, today’s rally was many times smaller than that of 1992. Workers and the youth of Thessaloniki have turned their backs massively on the peddlers of ‘patriotism’.
“The efforts of every chancer like Frangoulis, who supported a yes vote in the 2015 referendum and who today remembered to denounce the… austerity memorandum, leave the vast majority of the city indifferent.
“Our perspective on the Balkans is not the repetition of wars and massacres, but to strengthen internationalism and the conflict with NATO and the capitalists. We have nothing in common with those who imposed the memoranda in the name of ‘public interest’ and who now want to impose Macedonia’s naming dispute in the name of ‘national interest’.
“The next major step in this struggle is the international day of action on 17 March against racism and fascism, for which there will be large demonstrations and rallies across Greece.
“We call on the unions, student societies, movements and parties of the left to give this battle together – to isolate the nationalist shrieks and to send the fascists to prison.”