The Birth of a Nation

Who Are the Macedonians?

by Hugh Poulton
Indiana University Press, 218 pp., $29.95


On July 26, 1963, an earthquake leveled most of the pretty Ottoman city of Skopje, then the capital of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Tens of thousands of people were killed. One of the few survivors of the catastrophe was the façade of Skopje’s old railway station, whose large clock has stood still at 5:17 for over thirty-two years.

On October 3 this year, the black Mercedes of Kiro Gligorov, the president of the four-year-old Republic of Macedonia,1 was just passing the old railway station when a powerful car bomb was detonated by remote control. His driver was killed instantly and three pieces of metal landed in the President’s head, one penetrating the skull and entering his brain.

A spectacular assassination attempt, it seemed, was all that had been missing from the current tragedy in the Balkans. Gligorov is still alive, unlike his chauffeur and a passer-by, but the injuries he has sustained are very serious. By mid-October it was still unclear whether he would be able to assume office again. If he does not the outlook for Macedonia and its people is bleak. The attack came just at the moment when there was cause for optimism. On September 13, Macedonia and Greece finally signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations and removing the complete commercial blockade on Macedonia which Greece had imposed in February 1994.

For the last four years, since Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, the Greeks have refused recognition, claiming that Macedonia was illegitimate in a variety of ways, including its very name, which the Greeks maintain belongs only to them. The day before the car bombing, Gligorov had gone to Belgrade, where President Slobodan Milosevic said that he welcomed the agreement between Skopje and Athens, and wanted Yugoslavia and Macedonia to recognize each other as soon as possible. Gligorov was slowly but impressively digging his country out of a diplomatic mire.

The first independent Macedonian state was approved by its inhabitants in a referendum held in September 1991. Like his Bosnian counterpart Alija Izetbegovic, President Gligorov, a longstanding Communist official, worked hard to prevent the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia. When the European Community began to encourage independence for the Yugoslav republics in 1991, Gligorov reluctantly pursued that course. But he was particularly concerned about the decision of Macedonia’s largest minority, the Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population of about two million, to boycott the referendum, for he well understood the dangers of creating a weak state with a large, vocal, and distrustful minority.

Still, in a masterly stroke, Gligorov succeeded, after the referendum, in negotiating the withdrawal of the Yugoslav People’s Army from Macedonia without a shot being fired. True, the JNA took all its weapons with it, leaving the new state wholly defenseless. But at least the new country did not suffer from the effects of a scorched-earth policy or from an attempt by Serbia to use the small Serb minority in northern Macedonia as…

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