Macedonia’s Man of Peace

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 1990’s.

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 six-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 twentieth century, where ethnicity and identity were fluid and fraught.