What exactly happened in Thessaloniki last Sunday?

Whatever it was, its impact is going to show sooner or later. Whatever it was, nobody was really prepared for it, hence the completely different accounts as to how many people attended the rally to protest against the use of the word ‘Macedonia’ in the official name of the state now trading as ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, which Greeks call ‘Skopje’, by the name of its capital and the rest of the world calls ‘Macedonia’.

It was the largest rally to be held in Greece for a long time, and certainly larger than any protest has been held against the policies applied in the country as part of the bailout deal, after the country’s default.

One would think that the Greek people would protest against unemployment, unfair taxation, the demolition of welfare state, the disrespectful and contemptful treatment of pensioners and the vulnerable, the suffocation of small businesses, poverty, homelessness, property foreclosure, all that has destroyed the country’s middle class and deprived the younger generation from employment prospect. But no, apparently Greeks care less about their plight and more about how another country is named.

It’s easy to dismiss the protest. It was organised by the most conservative group of people in Greece, a faction of clergy who are sidelined even within the church, which is seeing its influence in society gradually fading, either way. Its main speakers were the local bishop, repeating the same rhetoric he’s known for and a retired general with obvious political aspirations.

It featured idiotic banners stating that “Greece is not for sale, because it has been bought by Jesus”.

It was a proud demonstration of all that is associated with “nationalist kitch” – the far-right esthetics sartorially expressed through military uniforms, both modern and vintage, covering a vast range from the uniform of the Macedonian Struggle warriors to the armour of the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Of course, most of the people were dressed in normal clothes.

They were perfectly normal, everyday people, and they were a lot. According to the police, they were about 90,000 – 100,000. According to the organisers they were about 400,000. Although it makes no sense to question the official numbers (there would be no point for the police to offer a false statement), for the sake of argument, let’s agree that the actual number was somewhere in the middle, around 250,000 – a lot. When such a number of people show up on a Sunday morning, the government has no option than to listen to what they say. But what did they say?

The main speaker at the event, retired general Frangoulis Frangos said that Special UN envoy Mathew Nimetz has become rich through the Macedonia dispute, that mayor Boutaris is on the payroll of George Soros and that FYROM should adopt the name “Monkey Macedonia”.

People in the audience chanted “the general is crazy” in rhythmic unison, while the former leader of Greece’s Armed forces (and part-time minister of defence in the 2012 provisional government) went on saying: “We will not back down. They will find us in front of them, whatever this means.”No, seriously, what does it mean? Is the “crazy general” calling people to resort to violence? Is he declaring war on FYROM? In which capacity? And why now? After, it’s been 25 years that Greece and Greeks all over the world have accepted the name ‘Macedonia’ as part of the country’s temporary name – unless anyone thinks that the ‘M’ in FYROM stands for ‘Mambo’. Greece has not only accepted a name with ‘Macedonia’ as a component since the interim agreement of 1995, it has been living with it since the end of WWII when it was called the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia”.

If there was ever a time to declare war, it might be then.

But Greece had more serious issues to deal with at the time, most notably to conduct a civil war and then start over. A series of conservative governments, ranging from centre-right to far-right did not bother to raise the issue and by the time the hot potato started burning the hands of Konstantinos Mitsotakis and Andreas Papandreou it was already too late. No, this is not to say that the fight for the name of FYROM is a lost cause. It would be a lost cause if there had been any kind of fight. But there hasn’t been. It has been dealt with reluctant displays of indignation and severity by all Greek governments since 1992 – a veto here, an embargo there, and in the meantime, Greece’s neighbours were becoming more and more prone to nationalism.

The direct result of Mitsotakis’ reluctance and Papandreou’s faux-hardline was to allow for the ascension of the likes of Nikola Gruevski and his ridiculous nationalist kitch. At the same time, Greek enterprises have been colonising Skopje making very lucrative deals and more Greeks have been visiting the country to play at the casinos and benefit from affordable dentistry. One cannot help but wonder how many of the thousands of indignant patriots opposing any name with the component Macedonia had their tooth cavities filled in the country. They may declare that their soul is forever associated with the name ‘Macedonia’ but their crowns and bridges are a whole different situation.

But let’s get back to what is said through these teeth: that FYROM is not only trying to steal Greece’s history but also it’s territory, its irredentist intensions being clearly present in the country’s constitution. This, of course, is not true. All irredentist notions have been eliminated from the constitution, as part of the interim deal that saw them concede in using the ancient symbol of the Vergina Sun as their national emblem. Their constitution clearly states that the country has no territorial claims on any other country. And how could it? The whole point of the negotiations is to enter international entities that will further enhance its relations with Greece, making us allies and members of the same European Union.

As for the historical argument, it only makes testament to how Greeks perceive themselves as parts of the world. We are so certain that our history is what defines us, that we have been unable to see past it and live in the present, or create a future. In reality, of course, history belongs to nobody. The history of Alexander the Great is just that; the history of an ancient king, not of his subjects’ descendants a couple of thousand years later. Those afraid that history can be stolen, have no idea of what history is. And the same applies to people trying to steal history.

When FYROM named their airport ‘Alexander the Great’, they were demonstrating the same ignorance, lack of understanding and stupidity associated with nationalism of any kind. Now that the country is showing signs of progress, it is our turn to become stubborn and stupid. We fight nationalism with nationalism and when moderates come to power, we run to fill the nationalistic void.

This is what Sunday’s circus was all about. A display of the undying Greek nationalism. The far-right undertone of the event would be evident even if there had been no violent incidents; even if the Holocaust memorial had not been vandalised; even if the building occupied by the ‘Libertatia’ anarchist group had not been arsoned; even if it didn’t feature the well-known gang of thugs going around under the name ‘Golden Dawn’. It was there. Kiriakos Mitsotakis listened; the leader of the opposition sent the far-right faction of his party as an unofficial delegation.

In what turned out to be an anti-government rally, the Opposition was hi-jacked by a retired general, barely making sense. What we saw on Sunday was the birth of a new far-right movement, reacting to the failure of the ‘leftist’ government to cater for the working classes and the failure of the centrists to stand up for a people feeling humiliated by the lenders.

Mitsotakis tried to play along, saying that all irredentist mentions should be eliminated by FYROM’s constitution before any kind of agreement is reached. PM Alexis Tsipras played into it as well, speaking of irredentism when he met Zoran Zaev.

They both know that FYROMs constitution is clear of irredentism. Their political clientelle doesn’t.

As for FYROM, it agreed to rename the airport and central avenue. These moderates know how to spoil the fun at a nationalist event.