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Early history

Historical and geographical Macedonia is divided between the Republic of Macedonia, the Greek province of Macedonia and a corner of Bulgaria called Pirin Macedonia. The largest portion of the historic Macedonia region is now Greek territory, a point that Greeks are always quick to make when disputing Macedonia’s use of the name, as they invariably do. In any case, the region was the homeland of Alexander the Great, who sallied forth to conquer the ancient world in the 4th century BC. Rarely independent, the territory of the Republic of Macedonia has often been a staging post for invaders. Roman rule was entrenched after the conquest of Macedonia in 168 BC, and over the next 500 years the ancestors of the Vlach people developed a Latin dialect. Today’s Vlach community speak a language called Aromanian, which, as the names suggests, is related to Romanian and Latin. Many Vlach villages lie along the route of the Roman Via Egnatia, a vital military road and trade route that stretched from Durrës in Albania to Istanbul (Constantinople) in Turkey. When the Roman Empire was divided in the 4th century AD, this region came under the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled from Constantinople. Slavs started settling in the area in the 7th century AD, and not long after adopted the Christian faith of earlier residents.

In the 9th century the region was conquered by Car Simeon (r 893–927) and later, under Car Samoil (r 980–1014), Macedonia was the centre of a powerful Bulgarian state. Samoil’s defeat by Byzantium in 1014 ushered in a long period when Macedonia passed back and forth between Byzantium, Bulgaria and Serbia. Around this time the first Roma (also known as Gypsy) people arrived in the area after a long migration from northern India. After the crushing defeat of Serbia by the Ottomans in 1389, Macedonia became part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans divided civil life according to religious affiliation, in what was called the millet system. The Greek Orthodox Church was given much power over the Macedonian Christians, causing great resentment.

In 1878 Russia defeated Turkey, and Macedonia was ceded to Bulgaria by the Treaty of San Stefano. The Western powers, fearing the creation of a powerful Russian satellite in the heart of the Balkans, forced Bulgaria to return Macedonia to Ottoman rule.

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In 1893 Macedonian nationalists formed the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) to fight for independence from Turkey, culminating in the Ilinden uprising of August 1903, which was brutally suppressed in October of the same year. Although the nationalist leader Goce Delčev died before the revolt, he has become the symbol of Macedonian nationalism.

The First Balkan War of 1912 saw Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro fighting together against Turkey. During the Second Balkan War in 1913, Greece and Serbia ousted the Bulgarians and carved up Macedonia. Frustrated by this, VMRO continued the struggle against the new rulers, and in response the interwar government in Belgrade banned the Macedonian language and the name Macedonia. Though some VMRO elements supported Bulgarian occupation during WWII, many more joined Josip Broz Tito’s partisans, and in 1943 it was agreed that postwar Macedonia would have full republic status in a future Yugoslavia. Tito led the communist resistance to German occupation in WWII and later became prime minister, then president, of Yugoslavia.

The end of WWII brought Macedonians hope of unifying their peoples. This was encouraged by the Greek Communist Party and Bulgaria’s recognition of its Macedonian minorities. However the Stalin-Tito split of 1948, and the end of the Greek civil war in 1949, put an end to such hopes. Nonetheless, the first Macedonian grammar was published in 1952 and an independent Macedonian Orthodox Church was reinstated.

Over the subsequent 40 years Yugoslavia prospered by comparison with other Eastern European states, with citizens free to travel and worship as they wished. The country was also open as a tourist destination.

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On 8 September 1991 Macedonians held a referendum on independence. Seventy-four percent voted in favour and in January 1992 the country declared its full independence from the former Yugoslavia. Macedonian leader Kiro Gligorov artfully negotiated the only peaceful withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from any of the former republics.

Greece withheld diplomatic recognition of Macedonia and demanded that the country find another name, worried that it implied territorial claims over Aegean Macedonia, which they had obtained in the 1913 carve-up. At Greek insistence, Macedonia was forced to use the ‘provisional’ title Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in order to be admitted to the UN in April 1993. When the USA (following six EU countries) recognised FYROM in February 1994, Greece declared an economic embargo against Macedonia and closed the Aegean Macedonian port of Thessaloniki to trade. The embargo was lifted in November 1995 after Macedonia changed its flag and agreed to discuss its name with Greece. To date, there’s been no resolution of this thorny issue. Increasingly the name Macedonia is being used internationally, despite Greek intransigence.

Meanwhile, the country’s ethnic Albanian minority was seeking better representation on the political and cultural fronts, and tried to set up an Albanian-speaking university in Tetovo in 1995. Since Macedonian was the only official language according to the country’s constitution, the authorities declared the university illegal and tried to close it down. Soon after, President Gligorov lost an eye in an assassination attempt and tensions increased.

Over the following years, an Albanian rebel group called the National Liberation Army was formed and claimed responsibility for a number of bombings. This escalated in February 2001 into armed conflict in western Macedonia. Hostilities did not last long, however. With the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement in August 2001, the Macedonian government agreed to greater political participation for the Albanian minority, official recognition of the Albanian language, as well as an increase in the number of ethnic Albanian police officers throughout the country.

Macedonia became an official candidate for EU membership in December 2005 and has been steadily progressing towards that goal. Stumbling blocks may be the name issue with Greece and increasing European concerns about enlargement. Macedonia also hopes to join NATO before the end of the decade.

At the time of writing Macedonia has found itself caught between European justice and a possible NATO partner, in a case where a German man was allegedly detained by Macedonian officials when entering the country before being handed over to America’s CIA, kidnapped and flown to Afghanistan for interrogation. There is some concern that Macedonia’s non-cooperation with European investigators may prove a stumbling block to EU membership.

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