ATHENS — Thousands of people demonstrated in Athens on Sunday, days before the Greek Parliament was to vote on ratifying an agreement to rename the country’s northern neighbor North Macedonia.
Former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, a conservative, told reporters that the rally was “a demonstration for democracy, for Greece, for what we know to be right.”
Organizers of the rally, who have staged several demonstrations against the deal over the past year, said Sunday’s protest could be one of their biggest, with 600,000 people expected to attend. Police officers were deployed in Athens, the capital, and helicopters circled overhead.
Greece has long opposed the name “Macedonia” for its northern neighbor, saying that it implied territorial aspirations over a northern Greek region of the same name. Under the deal signed by Athens and Skopje in June, Macedonia would change its name to North Macedonia and Greece would lift its objections to its neighbor joining NATO and the European Union.
The Macedonian Parliament ratified the agreement this month, but to take effect it must also be approved by Greek lawmakers. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece is expected to obtain the votes required to push the measure through Parliament, after barely surviving a confidence vote late Wednesday that had been called after his coalition partner resigned in protest of the accord.
The new name offers a “clear distinction” between the Greek region and the neighboring country, Mr. Tsipras said at the time the agreement was reached. Apart from the name change, the deal stipulates that the neighboring country “can claim no relation to the ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia,” he added.
In a speech before the confidence vote last week, Mr. Tsipras added that Greece’s neighbor had assured him that a reference in the deal to Macedonian “nationality” does not imply an indigenous Macedonian ethnicity but refers exclusively to citizenship.
Opinion polls suggest, however, that 70 percent of Greeks oppose the deal, indicating that Mr. Tsipras may continue to face social upheaval.
Priests and right-wing politicians were among the protesters in central Athens on Sunday waving Greek flags and banners declaring, “Macedonia is Greek.” Members of the Mount Athos monastic community in the north of the country addressed the crowd, flanked by Greeks in traditional clothing, declaring that the deal “distorts history.” The monks have called for a referendum on the deal.
Leftist counterprotesters also gathered in central Athens, prompting the police to use buses to create a physical barrier between the two groups, although there were no reports of altercations.
Separately, farmers in northern Greece blocked a national highway with their tractors in an hourlong protest. The police had prevented them from reaching the Evzones border crossing between Greece and Macedonia, where they had originally intended to demonstrate.
Despite the vocal and divisive social and political response to the deal, Mr. Tsipras insisted in an interview with the government-affiliated newspaper Avgi on Sunday that it was “historic” and that its approval was a “patriotic duty.”
The main conservative opposition party, New Democracy, which has far more support in opinion polls than Mr. Tsipras’s leftist Syriza party, has condemned the deal as “harmful for the country” and has called for elections so that Greeks can decide on the issue.
In a message on Twitter on Sunday, Giorgos Kyrtsos, a New Democracy lawmaker in the European Parliament, accused the government of “provocatively and persistently ignoring the will of the Greek people” and called on citizens to join the protest in Athens.
Mr. Tsipras has insisted that his government will see out its four-year term, which is to expire in October. But analysts say that he will struggle to pass any measures given that he has what is effectively a minority government after the resignation last week of his coalition partner, the Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos.
Mr. Tsipras would require the support of independent and opposition lawmakers to ratify the Macedonia name deal. Many observers say that his dependence on outside support is untenable and likely to lead to snap elections, possibly in May, when European and local elections are scheduled.
Mr. Kammenos, who was also defense minister, has called on the prime minister to dismiss other Independent Greeks ministers in his government, whom he dismissed from the party after they backed Mr. Tsipras in the confidence vote. Failure to do so would be a “cause of war,” Mr. Kammenos said, pledging to vote down any legislation the prime minister brings to Parliament.
After the vote on the Macedonia deal, expected at the end of this week, Mr. Tsipras is expected to try to burnish his leftist credentials, introducing measures to increase the minimum wage and protections for indebted homeowners.
However, with representatives of Greece’s foreign creditors expected in Athens this week for talks on economic overhauls, the prime minister is also likely to face continued pressure for economic belt-tightening as Greece continues to feel the effects of a decade-long debt crisis.