FIRST MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT
By GABRIEL PARTOS
AMONG the Yugoslav republics that opted for independence in 1991-92, only Macedonia achieved its goal without war, and that success was due, in great part, to the negotiating skills and experience of its first president, Kiro Gligorov, who has died aged 94. This crowning achievement came when the ex-communist was already in his mid-70s, and after he had come out of more than a decade of semi-retirement.
As Yugoslavia was falling apart, Gligorov's Macedonia, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, tried to steer a middle course between Serbia, which under president Slobodan Milosevic was bent on recentralising the fragmenting federation under Belgrade's control. When Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in June 1991, he concluded that there was no option but to follow on the same path if Macedonia was to avoid becoming a Serbian satellite republic.
After Macedonians voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that September, Gligorov negotiated a deal with the increasingly Serb-dominated Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) that resulted in the JNA's withdrawal from Macedonia in April 1992.
Milosevic allowed Macedonia to leave the federation mainly because he did not want to fight on two fronts. He was already engaged in Croatia and was about to get involved in Bosnia. Besides, like many others at the time, he did not expect Macedonia surrounded by hostile neighbours and home to a restive ethnic Albanian minority, to survive as an independent state for long.
Gligorov was born in the central Macedonian town of Shtip and trained as a lawyer at the University of Belgrade. He joined Tito's communist partisans following the German-led invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, when Macedonia came under Bulgarian rule.
After the end of the Second World War, Gligorov worked at the Yugoslav ministry of finance and the economic planning institute. He rose through the ranks and, in 1962, became minister of finance. Five years later, he was appointed deputy prime minister and was set to become prime minister, but Tito changed his mind, blaming Gligorov's espousal of economic liberalisation for the wave of unrest that swept across parts of Yugoslavia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1978 he was out of politics and spent the 1980s as an economics adviser in Belgrade.
Gligorov was recalled to the Yugoslav government team in 1990 when the 11th-hour efforts of the prime minister, Ante Markovic to reform the economy and, in the process, keep the federation together, were sabotaged by nationalist leaders.
Gligorov returned to Macedonia, where his reputation as the republic's elder statesman ensured his election in 1991 by parliament as president, consolidating his personal standing with a landslide victory in 1994 in a direct election. In the early 1990s, Gligorov attended the abortive international negotiations, chaired by Lord Carrington, the former British foreign secretary charged with finding a peaceful solution to the break-up of the Yugoslav federation.
Carrington gave up in 1992, complaining about the lack of good faith among the participants, the only exception being Gligorov, whom he described as "an honest and thoroughly decent man".
That favourable assessment was not shared by Greek politicians who were involved in a dispute with Macedonia over the new state's name, which, they argued, implied a territorial claim to Greece's own northern province bearing the same name. They were also irritated by Macedonia's flag, the Star of Vergina, which Greece regarded as a symbol of Hellenic civilisation.
As the row escalated, Greece imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia in 1994, which was lifted only after Gligorov agreed to change the flag a year later. However, failure to agree on a name means that Macedonia continues to be known at the UN by its temporary name as "the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia".
The lifting of the Greek trade embargo in 1995 was Gligorov's last major success. Shortly before the deal was signed, a remote-controlled bomb, set off by unknown perpetrators, destroyed his car, killing his driver and seriously injuring him.
He served out his term, which included Macedonia hosting NATO forces during the alliance's air strikes in 1999 that ended Serbian control over neighbouring Kosovo and stepped down at the end of that year.
Gligorov remained active in retirement. His wife, Nada Misheva, died in 2009. A son and two daughters survive him.