By Matthew Miller
ATHENS, Greece — With the theme from Rocky playing in the background, vendors on June 17 hawked everything from patriotic banners to Mickey Mouse balloons at a protest at Syntagma Square that ended with riot police teargassing members of the crowd of up to 5,000 protestors.
A range of vendors profited off of the cheerful atmosphere that prevailed earlier in the day. Greek men, women and children gathered at Syntagma Square outside the Hellenic Parliament to protest a recent deal to change the name of the nation of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece claims historical ownership of the Macedonian name and has blocked Macedonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO over the naming dispute. President Alexis Tsipras of Greece and President Zoran Zaev of Macedonia reached an agreement to rename Macedonia in exchange for Greece’s official recognition. This agreement sparked right-wing protests in both nations as protestors complained that their government traded away their country’s claim to the name Macedonia.
Sunday’s demonstration resembled a cheery patriotic celebration more than a nationalist protest, with repeated chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” piercing through the upbeat music. Street vendors sold food and balloons of Minions and other cartoon figures.
Yiannis Giannpoulos was having fun at the protest. Giannpoulos sells nuts on the streets of Athens in 1 euro and 2 euro bags to pedestrians in need of a snack. Surrounded by protestors draped in patriotic flags, he sold his sweet and salty nuts to anyone in need of a quick snack. Asked why he was working at the protest, Giannpoulos had a simple answer: “it’s fun!”
Most vendors operated stands selling patriotic paraphernalia. They peddled the flags of Greece, the Greek region of Macedonia, the Greek Orthodox Church, and protest banners. Most prominent were the yellow flag of the Greek Orthodox Church, the blue and white striped Greek flag, and the golden star flag of Greek Macedonia.
Not all vendors sold their flags from established stands. At the top of the stairs to the subway stood a handful of women selling Greek flags from their carts and IKEA bags.
A peddler who identified himself only as Michalis said he owns and operates one of the largest flag stands at the protest. With the widest variety of flags and protest banners, his stand was filled with people throughout the day. Michalis explained that these stands didn’t pop up just for the protest. They normally operate outside of football matches, selling their patriotic paraphernalia to Greek football fans wanting to represent their nation. The protest and its audience of as many as 5,000 excited nationalistic protestors was simply too good of a market to pass up.
The protest had serious elements as well. There was a significant number of Orthodox church members and nationalist skinheads, and the protest ended with demonstrators climbing the stairs to Parliament, prompting the riot police on standby to teargas the crowd. But overall, the protest’s atmosphere throughout the day was as Yiannis Giannpoulos described it: “fun”.
(This article was produced in conjunction with Princeton University’s Global Reporting initiative and overseen by Joe Stephens, Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton and a former investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Funding was provided by Princeton’s Ferris Seminars in journalism and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.)