Athens Digest 22.01.2018

• Macedonia rally rattles government

• Tsipras backs quick compromise on FYROM’s name dispute

• Greece ready for bailout exit, PM says

• MinFin Tsakalotos worried about possible IMF demands

# Tens of thousands of protesters attended a rally in Thessaloniki on Sunday to oppose a proposed compromise in the long-standing name dispute between neighbours Greece and FYROM. Police said 90,000 people attended the rally, while the organizers put the number at 400,000. It was the largest protest held since Tsipras’ re-election in September 2015.
The peaceful protest in Greece’s second largest city followed the launch of talks at the U.N. involving diplomats from the two countries who are considering several proposals, including one to rename the republic as ‘New’ or ‘Nova’ Macedonia. The protest was addressed by the city’s bishop, and attended by a group of commando reservists in military uniform and Cretan horseback riders in traditional dress, among the thousands who traveled by bus and ferry from other parts of Greece.
MPs from opposition parties, as well as from the government’s right-wing coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, also attended.
The centre-right New Democracy party was quick to take a stand on the issue.
After the rally ended, opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis praised the “great sensitivity” shown by the protesters on the name issue.
And he added: “I respect and share this sensitivity… that expressed public frustration at a government which, acting in secret and with its actions and omissions has displayed its inability to serve the national interest.”

# PM Tsipras has openly supported a swift compromise on the name dispute, explicitly backing the U.N. process that seeking to a so-called composite name solution. “It is not unreasonable to include the term ‘Macedonia’ in a composite name, with either a geographical or temporal description,” Alexis Tsipras told the Athens daily Ethnos. “That would make it absolutely clear that no one is claiming the territory or the history of another people.”
The U.N. talks have opened up a potential rift in Greece’s governing coalition, with Tsipras defence minister and coalition partner Panos Kammenos reiterating he could not accept a solution that included the term ‘Macedonia.’ Tsipras described Kammenos as a “honourable and patriotic” politician.
The increasingly vocal opposition is likely to complicate efforts to find a solution by the summer. Western nations are keen to lock in FYROM’s NATO membership and counter the perceived expansion of Russian influence in the region.

# Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the country will not need a precautionary credit line from bailout lenders after the rescue programme ends in August, despite support for the idea from the country’s central bank governor.
Tsipras said that Finance Ministry plans to build up cash buffers would assist in a stable return to the market. Ministry officials say the government’s position has been bolstered by falling bond yields and favourable moves from credit ratings agencies, including a sovereign upgrade late on Friday from S&P Global Ratings by one notch to B, with a positive outlook. In the interview, Tsipras also played down widespread speculation of a snap autumn election, saying his government remained committed to a serving a full term to ensure socially fair growth after the bailout exit.

# Greece should continue structural reforms and help banks ease their NPL burden after the bailout programme ends this year, Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos has told a meeting of senior members of his left-wing Syriza party. The cautionary remarks came ahead of today’s Eurogroup meeting which will assess progress in Greece.
Continued reforms, as part of a government growth plan, he argued, would head off calls for strict post-programme surveillance and a possible demand from the International Monetary Fund for Athens to further slash the tax threshold in 2019 instead of 2020 as it was originally planned. The scenario of another monitoring Greek progamme with the IMF, even without financing, remains a basic one between the country’s creditors.

On our radar: The “Group of 53” causes friction at Syriza
The latest round of reforms that was voted in parliament last week has rekindled friction within the ranks of the ruling party. Dissenting members of Syriza’s central committee, known as the Group of 53 (MinFin Tsakalotos is considered as leading member), issued a statement with a long list of grievances, disputing the government line that Greece is heading for a “clean exit” from the bailout programme. The list included a demand to end the EU-backed containment policy for refugees and migrants on Greek islands near the Turkish coast, and review the party’s ongoing collaboration in government with the nationalist Independent Greeks. Failure to properly address high unemployment and government support for the auction of homes with unpaid mortgages were, the statement went on, “an assault on the soul of the left.”