Kiro Gligorov: President of Macedonia throughout the Nineties

While Yugoslavia was descending into chaos in the early 1990s, fate smiled upon its most obscure breakaway republic, the Republic of Macedonia.

It was led by Kiro Gligorov, a senior politician who understood how to sway, adapt and appease a patchwork of contradictory voices and identities. He was its first democratically elected president, serving two terms from 1991 to 1999. Unlike other ex-Yugoslav heads of state, he did not fantasise himself as the glorious conquering leader of an ancient nation destined for immortality. His down-to-earth approach saved his country's citizens from the ravages of war and gave them a solid start in the European family.

He was born in 1917 in Stip, an area identified geographically as Macedonia. It had been liberated in 1912 from the Turks to become "Southern Serbia". By 1917 it was part of Bulgaria, only to return to the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia as Vardar Banovina. He grew up against the backdrop of competing factions engaged in political assassinations to determine the fate of his Macedonian homeland. His own surname changed from Panchev to Grigorovic, Grigorov and finally Gligorov, reflecting the fashions of changing sovereignties.

During the Second World War he was a lawyer and eventually joined the resistance. He became a formative figure of ASNOM (Anti-Fascist Assembly for the People's Liberation of Macedonia) from which emerged the Socialist Republic of Macedonia as a federal Yugoslav state. With liberation he held high-ranking positions in the Communist Yugoslav government.

He returned to Skopje in 1989 as Yugoslavia was splitting at the seams and was elected President of the independent Republic of Macedonia. However, with Bosnian President Izetbegovic, he initially angled for a loose federal Yugoslavia. Both countries had sizeable ethnic constituencies and feared that full independence would break up their own states.

When he took over, Macedonia had almost no ministries, its restless Albanian minority yearned for independence and its few industries were closing down. Then its exports suffered as the UN sanctions against Serbia cut off its main trading partner and route to central European markets. Soon, Greece vetoed its recognition, fearing that behind its name the new state harboured irredentist designs against the Greek province of Macedonia, and carried out a punishing 19-month blockade, up to 1995.

But Gligorov realised that each dark cloud came with a generous silver lining. Greek arguments that the name was the last Cold War threat fell into disbelieving ears because for most of the world, the name Macedonia was not associated with the Soviet bloc. The US hardly knew where it was and the Foreign Office was idly trying to locate books on it. At home, the name issue not only put the lid on any potential Albanian uprising, it rallied the diaspora and gave its government officials unhoped-for access to a stream of international political figures who feared the war might embroil Nato members Greece and Turkey.

But there was also a real challenge at home. Even as ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia fostered genocides, the main Macedonian opposition and largest party, VMRO-DPMNE, had earned its sudden popularity on the back of an extreme nationalist agenda that included so-called ethnic maps for a greater Macedonia that violated the international borders of Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. It also used quasi-paramilitary imagery of might and slogans that involved death and sacrifice. Gligorov's answer was elegant, catchy and eminently Macedonian. He advocated equal distance from all the neighbours and turned the small size and vulnerability of his country and its peaceful secession into a powerful argument for international support and recognition. And he got it.

His position is summarised in his government's 1993 memorandum to the UN: "Greece is trying to exploit statements made by extremists in the Republic of Macedonia and abroad, that have no official support and do not reflect, in any respect, the official policy of the Republic of Macedonia."

Also, in the face of some political and diaspora organisations claiming direct ancestry to Alexander the Great, he stated that the Macedonians are Macedonian Slavs who arrived in the 6th century AD with no connection to Alexander. His reassuring manner gained the trust of Europe. More importantly, the US embassy in Skopje intervened directly on a number of occasions to hold back Albanian militants and to prevent VMRO-DPMNE from whipping up dire ethnic demonstrations. This allowed Gligorov and his SDSM coalition to consolidate his nation-building along democratic lines.

On 3 October 1995 a car bomb assassination attempt against him left him badly wounded and blind in one eye. The attack went largely unreported in the western media which filled its pages with news of the acquittal of American actor OJ Simpson. In fact, by then Gligorov's work had been concluded. He recovered and lived a quiet life, wrote books and established a cultural foundation bearing his name.

Kiro Gligorov, politician: born Stip, Kingdom of Serbia 3 May 1917; married (wife died 2009; one son, two daughters); died Skopje, Republic of Macedonia 1 January 2012.

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