The Skopje square where Macedonia's independence was proclaimed 20 years ago was the site of celebrations unlike any in the country's modern history.
By Marina Stojanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 09/09/11
Independence celebrations at Skopje's Macedonia Square. [Tomislav Georgiev/SETimes]
Macedonia marked 20 years of independent statehood on Thursday (September 8th) in grand style, with celebrations in downtown Skopje attended by an estimated 150,000 people.
Low-flying aircraft passed over the crowd, while units of the Macedonian army marched through the streets and dozens of the country's top performers participated onstage at Skopje's central square.
"We have seen both good and bad, but we showed that we can create a system of respect for diversity," Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said in his commemorative address, recalling Macedonia's difficult but ultimately successful path following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
"The state is a guarantee of the survival of the Macedonian people on their remaining piece of land to be able to freely develop, complete with their own language and national-cultural identity as Macedonians," said Blazhe Ristovski, vice president of the country's first democratically elected government, in comments to SETimes.
Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991, avoiding the violence that wracked other parts of the former federation.
"Our parliament's determination to avoid the trap -- passing an act of independence -- and the decision to transfer that task to the people to decide through a referendum was crucial for our destiny," the president of the first parliament, Stojan Andov, told SETimes, adding that the move eliminated the risk of military intervention and prevented "dark forces" from overwhelming the country.
Macedonia, however, indirectly suffered the effects of the economic sanctions against Serbia and the loss of Yugoslav and other markets due to the conflict.
In the ensuing years, the newly independent nation also faced an economic blockade from Greece, which rejects its neighbour's use of the name "Macedonia". The blockade thwarted development and was not removed until 1994, when an interim agreement was reached.
During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Macedonia housed over 300,000 Albanian refugees at its expense. In 2001, a conflict with rebel Albanians ended by signing the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which imposed major changes in the constitution and a subsequent territorial re-organisation.
Having weathered these challenges, Macedonia obtained EU candidate status in 2005. That, says Andov, proves its capacity to survive and develop together with other states, and just as importantly, its role in promoting peace.
"Macedonia's entry in NATO and the EU will mean its incorporation in the political, security and economic European system, as well as a possibility for its further development. At the same time it will strengthen the European system," Andov said.
Former MP in the first government Ismet Ramadani -- an ethnic Albanian -- says he is proud to be a part of the celebration today just like 20 years ago.
"At that time we entered into politics with great enthusiasm. We thought that quickly and easily we will build democratic institutions, rule of law and a developed economy in order to provide a decent life for the citizens," Ramadani told SETimes.
"Today, despite all the positive changes ... I can not reconcile the fact that my country is still not a NATO and EU member," he added.
The reason for that, says Ristovski, is the ongoing impasse with Greece. "The demand to change our country's name is not understandable and is absolutely unacceptable. Without our historical name, we would cut the roots of the Macedonian people, language and identity, and would remain only a territory without history and culture," he said.