Kiro Gligorov

The history of the indipendent Macedonia is strongly linked to its first president, Kiro Gligorov, who led it during the difficult years of the Yugoslav crisis. Gligorov, still active and respected in his country, marked last week his ninetieth birthday in a Skopje restaurant

22/05/2007 -  Risto Karajkov Skopje

The first president of Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov turned 90 last week. He marked it with a small birthday party at a Skopje restaurant. Not much media attention focused on the event. Yet perhaps it should have. As it is such an extraordinary story. And for Macedonia an important one.

The name of Kiro Gligorov interweaves with some of the most important moments of Macedonian history in the last century.

Back in the 90s, when all hell in Yugoslavia broke loose, some of the international envoys involved in the dissolution called him the "only reasonable politician, whose word you can trust" from the leaders of the Yugoslav successor states. At the occasion of Gligorov's departure from politics, after the termination of his 2nd term as president, professor Ljubomir Frckovski, active protagonist of Macedonian politics from the 90s, described him as a "player in a higher league" than his former Yugoslav counterparts.

According to some sources, at the age of 82, he was the oldest living president of a country in 1998, in the last year of his term.

Still very vital today, he received a small sculpture of a Taurus from current president Branko Crvenkovski. After his zodiac sign, said Mr. Crvenkovski.

After a long career in the high echelons of power in former Yugoslavia, Kiro Gligorov was enjoying his pensioner days in Belgrade when Tito's state started to crumble. In need of experience and guidance, the political establishment in Skopje brought him back to have him elected as president (by Parliament) in January of 1991. Those were uncertain days. In the months which followed, the former Yugoslav republics started declaring independence. Slovenia lead the way, in June; followed Croatia.

Mr. Gligorov lead Macedonia to its referendum for independence, on 8 September 1991 (Albanians didn't vote), and to its first constitution as an independent country, adopted by Parliament on 17 November 1991 (Albanian parties boycotted the vote).

Yet, nobody really knew how things will develop back in those days. The Yugoslav army (JNA), by that point largely composed of Serb soldiers, was still in the Skopje barracks. Macedonian nationalism was on the rise, lead by VMRO-DPMNE of Ljubco Georgievski. Naïve and crude as this nationalism was, it dreamt the ethnic myth of lost greatness. "Thessalonki is Ours" read some banners at political rallies. There were voices arguing that the "road to statehood is soaked with blood", thereby advocating options involving violence. It is by now commonly acknowledged that it was Mr. Gligorov's prudence and patience which is to be credited for the fact that JNA left without a bullet being fired. That is perhaps all that it was needed back in those days. Recalling later the uncertainty of those days, Mr. Gligorov says that he often feared that JNA could just send several units out of the barracks and have all the major political representatives locked up in one night.

Many predicted that Macedonia could not survive as an independent state. The word went it would collapse after three months, or during the first winter. Everybody around wanted claimed had an old claim on it in the history books. Now, 16 years later, those (somewhat reformulated) claims still exist; Greeks do not recognize the name; Serbs the Church; Bulgarians the language.

The Greeks were enraged by the name Macedonia. In the first year after the independence they imposed a complete embargo. They closed the borders, sealed the small new country off, seriously hampered its economy, and delayed its international recognition. Many criticized Mr. Gligorov for having accepted a recognition by the UN in 1993, with the reference "former Yugoslav republic of". He had always explained this with the argument that back in those days, international recognition was an imperative, given the hostile regional context.

Serbia of Milosevic hadn't recognized Macedonia until 1996. It has been by now confirmed by quite a few sources that Mr. Milosevic had offered the Greek prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, to carve up Macedonia in the early 90s. Mitsotakis allegedly turned the offer down and reported him to the EU.

In October of 1994 Kiro Gligorov was elected for his 2nd term at direct presidential elections. He was back than by far the most trusted Macedonian politician, an attribute he retained throughout this presidency, and after that.

A year later, in October of 1995, on his usual route to work, in the very centre of Skopje, a car bomb blasted, as his vehicle was passing by. His driver died, as well as a bystander. Mr. Gligorov miraculously survived, though he lost an eye. Twelve years later, the investigation hasn't advanced much. A few witnesses died under unclear circumstances over the years. The early course of the investigation pointed to a "powerful Bulgarian multinational", Multigroup. The president of Multigroup Ivan Pavlov, was himself assassinated in 2003, following previous unsuccessful attempts. Mach was also made of the fact that Mr. Gligorov met with Mr. Milosevic, in Belgrade just a day before the assassination attempt. Nothing had ever been confirmed.

Mr. Gligorov recounts events in a charming and warm way: " A day before the assassination attempt Milosevic called me to go to Belgrade. He says 'I have come to you three times, you not even once'. I went. Didn't know what we would talk about. I took the small plane later to crush in Bosnia with president Trajkovski. They land me on Batajnica, and the minister of interior, who later committed suicide, greeted me. We went to Dabanovci....where Tito used to go hunting, we sit in a cabinet and he asks me 'Kiro, why don't we have diplomatic relations?'"

Having graduated from the law school in Belgrade, Kiro Gligorov worked as a layer for a private bank in Skopje when the second World War started. He joined the partisan movement in its early days. Towards the end of the war, in 1945, he was one of the organizers of ASNOM, a constitutional meeting that established the political contours of the Macedonian republic in the Yugoslav federation. ASNOM is the corner stone of the Macedonian state.

In the first years after the war, he was sent to Belgrade. He says, in order to be distanced from Skopje because of his "accentuated" ideas about the Macedonian national cause.

In Belgrade he has worked one many different positions, and has become known as one of the proponents of the economic reforms from the 60s. He retired from his political life as a president of the federal Yugoslav assembly.

In the late 80s, he was summoned by then prime minister Ante Markovic, to join his economic reform team, in a period of short bliss of economic prosperity before nationalism starts to disintegrate the country. Then he comes home.

In 1996 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His autobiography is titled "Macedonia is all we have".