Christopher Hill: Macedonia’s great patriot, unsung in his troubled homeland

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ANGELINA Jolie’s new film In the Land of Blood and Honey deals with the ethnic tensions that produced the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

The film is an emerging box-office success, attesting to the enduring interest the Balkans hold for international audiences who were as horrified as they were confused by the events of the 1990s.

For those of us who lived in the region during that turbulent decade, the post-Yugoslav wars remain fresh wounds. As Ms Jolie’s film shows, neither the international community nor local leaders made a concerted effort to prevent bloodshed.

One exception was Kiro Gligorov, president of Macedonia, who died in his sleep on New Year’s Day, aged 94. Mr Gligorov once told me about going with his grandfather to register for school in 1923. In the space of about a dozen years, Macedonia had been part of Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. So, when asked by the Serb headmaster what the six-year-old’s name was, Mr Gligorov’s grandfather replied, “Kiro Gligorovic”. Mr Gligorov looked to his grandfather to correct him, and his grandfather placed a finger over his mouth to silence him.

Mr Gligorov went on to become Mr Macedonia in Tito’s Yugoslavia. During the crucial years of the break-up, he led Macedonia to independence via a referendum in September 1991, and kept the country out of war. And he did so while working hard to bring Macedonia into Europe.

Macedonia had long been a question mark in Balkan history, and Mr Gligorov understood uncertainty about its people’s identity could lead to conflict. There remains no shortage of Bulgarians who believe Macedonians are Bulgarians, or Serbs who believe they are Serbs.

One of Mr Gligorov’s toughest challenges was dealing with the Albanian population, which has lived there for centuries. Their energies were hardly absorbed in distinctions between Macedonians, Serbs and Bulgarians (“They are all cloned Slavs,” as one Albanian leader unhelpfully said to me); but nor did they want to live as a “national minority”.

Macedonia’s constitution (another of Mr Gligorov’s contributions) guarantees full and equal rights for all citizens, but, problematically for some of its Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, and other minorities, describes the country as the “national state” of the Macedonians.

When Nato prepared for war with Serbia Nato commander General Wesley Clark asked Mr Gligorov if Macedonia would allow pre-positioning of supplies in the event a ground invasion would be necessary. “Only if you allow us into Nato,” was the reply. He explained: “The Serbs are our neighbours. They have long knives, and even longer memories.”

The Balkans is not kind to its politicians. So it will likely be some time before Mr Gligorov’s contributions are recognised in his troubled homeland. But he accomplished something that other Balkan leaders could not, or would not. He kept his country out of war.

• Christopher Hill was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia and Poland, and US special envoy for Kosovo.