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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea