DENVER -- Angelina Jolie’s new film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is about the ethnic tensions that produced the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II. The film has already won two awards and is an emerging box-office success, attesting to the enduring interest -- and perhaps mystery -- that 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 and worked in the region during that turbulent decade, the post-Yugoslav wars remain fresh wounds. As Jolie’s film so ably shows, neither the international community nor local leaders made a concerted effort to prevent bloodshed.
One exception -- perhaps the only exception -- was Kiro Gligorov, the president of Macedonia, who died in his sleep on New Year’s Day, at the age of 94. The fact that Jolie made a film about war in Bosnia, and not in Macedonia, is largely due to Gligorov, the only leader of the former Yugoslavia to keep his newly independent country out of those conflicts.
Gligorov once told me a story about going with his grandfather to register for school for the first time in 1923. At that time, 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 6-year-old’s name was, Gligorov’s grandfather replied, “Kiro Gligorovic.” Gligorov remembered looking up at his grandfather to correct him, and his grandfather placing his index finger over his mouth to silence him. Such was life in the Balkans in the early 20th century, where ethnicity and identity were fluid and fraught.
Gligorov went on to become Mr. Macedonia in Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia. During the crucial years of the Yugoslav breakup, especially when the country had become, in effect, Serbo-Slavia, and later, for greater effect, Slobo (Milosevic)-Slavia, 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 and Euro-Atlantic institutions, a task that remains a work in progress.
The first challenge that Gligorov faced was a dispute with neighboring Greece over the so-called “name issue.” From the Greek perspective, an independent state of Macedonia could imply a claim on the rest of geographical Macedonia, otherwise known as northern Greece. Ridiculous? Yes, but considering that the Greek civil war of 1946-1949 was essentially fought over the question of whether geographical Macedonia (including northern Greece) would be part of communist Yugoslavia, the Greeks can be forgiven -- somewhat -- for their concern that tiny Macedonia might lay claim to part of Greece.
The international community, working hard to get Macedonia into the United Nations, created an inelegant temporary name for the new country: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.
Of course, neither Gligorov, nor any other responsible leader in Macedonia, ever contemplated a claim to Northern Greece. But Gligorov understood something else: Despite all of the helpful advice from well-meaning visitors to change the country’s name, he had to be careful that, in trying to meet the Greeks halfway on the name issue, he did not sow future problems by compromising the identity of the country’s inhabitants.
Macedonia had long been a question mark in Balkan history, and Gligorov understood that uncertainty about the identity of its people could lead to conflict. Indeed, though not accepted in polite company, there remains no shortage of Bulgarians who believe that Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, or Serbs who believe that they are actually Serbs (or, as Milosevic once said to me, “our little brothers”). Thus, Gligorov was sometimes perceived as stubborn in rejecting proposed name changes from interlocutors who might have done better to crack a Balkan history book.
One of Gligorov’s toughest challenges was dealing with the country’s large 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 ethnic Albanian leader unhelpfully remarked to me); but nor did they want to live as a “national minority,” believing that to do so would be to live as a second-class citizen.
Macedonia’s constitution (another of Gligorov’s important 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.
As the Bosnian war was winding down in 1995, Gligorov was the target of an assassination attempt, a car bombing that killed his driver. Gligorov lost an eye, and part of his forehead was caved in. I saw him when he turned 90 and told him how good he looked. He smiled in his thoughtful way, and responded, “Funny, when I was younger, no one ever said that to me.”
When NATO prepared for war with Serbia over Kosovo, Gligorov managed the neighborhood carefully. NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark asked if Macedonia would allow pre-positioning of supplies in the event that a ground invasion would be necessary. “Only if you allow us into NATO,” was Gligorov’s reply. He explained to Clark: “The Serbs are our neighbors. They have long knives, and even longer memories.”
The Balkans is not kind to its politicians. So it will likely be some time before Gligorov’s contributions are recognized in his own troubled homeland. But he accomplished something that other leaders in the Balkans in the 1990s -- and in many other times and places -- could not, or would not. He kept his country out of war.
*Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was US ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. © Project Syndicate 2012