Macedonia celebrates 20 years of independence
(AP) — About 200,000 people gathered in Macedonia's capital Skopje on Thursday evening to attend celebrations for the Balkan country's 20th anniversary of independence.
The small, landlocked nation of 2 million was the only former Yugoslav republic to secede without bloodshed in 1991. But violence broke out a decade later, as government forces put down an armed uprising by ethnic Albanians seeking greater rights for the minority that makes up about a quarter of the population.
Today, analysts say Macedonia is still seeking to avoid sliding back into conflict.
Macedonia has been locked in a bitter dispute over its name with Greece, which says the term "Macedonia" implies territorial claims on its own province of the same name. Ties with its other neighbors, Bulgaria and Serbia, have also been testy, while the government has kept a wary eye on neighboring Kosovo, Europe's newest country, which was recognized as an independent state in 2008 and whose population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.
The name dispute with Greece in particular has had serious consequences, with Athens preventing Macedonia from joining NATO until the issue is resolved.
"Macedonia's legal identity has not been defined internationally yet, because of the problem with the country's name with Greece", political activist Risto Nikovski, a former diplomat and member of Macedonia's President Council for International Relations, said. "For that reason, fears still exist of new conflicts and reshaping the borders in the troubled Balkans, particularly now with the fragile situation in Bosnia and Kosovo."
Thursday's festivities took place around newly erected statues of national heroes in downtown Skopje, grandiose buildings such as a new Triumph Arc and spectacular fountains with water jet displays and national songs. A parade, theater and ballet displays, fireworks and concerts were also being held, with people being bused in to the capital for free from across the country.
Government officials, dignitaries and members of the National Guard walked in a procession carrying the Declaration of Independence from Yugoslavia to a new national history museum.
"These celebrations are needed, first of all to build up the national pride and to diminish the notion of a shaken identity," Nikovski said.
But some among the country's ethnic minority take a dimmer view of the nationalistic fervor.
"Over the past 20 years, Macedonia has insisted on the identity of the majority. Macedonia needs to fix the process of building up a state identity for only one ethnicity and allow others to feel comfortable in this country," said Albert Musliu, an ethnic Albanian political analyst and manager of the Association for Democratic Initiative, a think tank.
On the eve of the celebrations, one figure the government claims as the country's national hero, Alexander the Great, was everywhere.
Macedonia has named its international airport, highways, streets and squares after the ancient warrior king. His statues have appeared across the country, and a massive 28-metre monument — ostensibly of a warrior on a horse but widely held to be of Alexander — was erected in Skopje's main square.
Macedonians claim they have the same right as Greeks to call themselves descendants of Alexander, arguing that Macedonia in ancient times was one geographical territory, and its heroes now belong to everyone living in its separate states of Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria.
The government plans to erect an even larger statue of Alexander's father, Philip II, on the other side of the square.