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Kiro Gligorov, first elected president of Macedonia, dies at age 94

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SKOPJE, Macedonia - Kiro Gligorov, the first democratically elected president of Macedonia who shepherded his nation through a bloodless secession from the former Yugoslavia and narrowly survived an assassination attempt, has died. He was 94.

The head of Gligorov's office, Zivko Kondev, said Monday that the former president died in his sleep at his home in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, on Sunday evening. The exact cause of death was not immediately clear.

Gligorov had been in good spirits on New Year's Eve, said Kondev, adding he had visited the former president for a glass of champagne to see in the new year.

Current Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov received the news of Gligorov's death "with regret" his office said. Ivanov sent a telegram of condolences to the former president's family saying his tenure at the nation's leader saw it evolve into a "stable and prosperous country."

Gligorov became president of Macedonia in January 1991 when it was still a Yugoslav republic. He led his countrymen through a referendum in which they voted for independence, and the territory of 2.1 million people became the only republic to secede from Yugoslavia without a war.

Gligorov "proved how someone should lead the country and therefore undoubtedly has a historic role in recent Macedonian history," said former Parliament speaker Stojan Andov, who was also an aide to the former president.

Severely injured in an assassination attempt in October 1995, Gligorov emerged from a roughly four-month hospital stay with deep facial scars. The bomb which targeted his car as he headed to work in the capital, Skopje, cost him an eye and killed his driver and a bystander.

No suspects were ever arrested, and the investigation into the attempted assassination has made little headway in the intervening years.

Gligorov served two consecutive presidential terms, leading the nation from January 1991 to November 1999.

As Yugoslavia teetered on the brink of what would become a series of calamitous wars, he joined with late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to put forward a plan for a loose federation that would keep the country's republics from splitting. But the nationalist fervour whipped up by late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was too great, and the plan never came to fruition.

Macedonia managed to avoid the fate of the other Yugoslav republics by declaring independence without the breakout of conflict. But it was not all smooth for Gligorov.

The early days of his presidency were overshadowed by a bitter dispute with southern neighbour Greece over the newly independent nation's name — a dispute that continues to this day.

Athens objected to the use of the name "Macedonia," saying it implied territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name. It also objected to a symbol on the new country's flag and articles of the Macedonian constitution that Greece believed implied territorial claims.

Greece imposed a crippling 19-month embargo on its northern neighbour, hammering the new country's economy. In 1995, the Macedonian government signed an accord with Athens agreeing to remove the symbol from its flag and revising some articles of the constitution, but talks on the country's name have made little progress. In official bodies such as the United Nations, the country is known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Gligorov also faced domestic unrest, with the republic's large ethnic Albanian minority pressing for greater cultural and political autonomy.

The demands eventually boiled over into armed conflict about two years after Gligorov's second term was over, with ethnic Albanian rebels battling government troops for about six months in 2001. The two sides eventually signed an internationally brokered peace accord under which minorities were guaranteed greater rights, and NATO peacekeepers were sent to the country.

Born in the central Macedonian town of Shtip on May 3, 1917, Gligorov graduated from law school in Belgrade and was working as a lawyer for a private bank in Skopje when World War II broke out.

He joined the partisan movement fighting against the Nazi occupation from its early days, and toward the end of the war in 1945 was one of the organizers of the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the People's Liberation of Macedonia, or ASNOM. The organization worked to establish Macedonia's identity and territory within the Yugoslav federation and is considered the cornerstone of the Macedonian state.

In the years immediately following the war, the republic's Communist leaders sent Gligorov to Belgrade to represent Macedonia — a move he later said was an attempt to distance him from Skopje because of his "accentuated" ideas about the Macedonian national cause.

While in the Yugoslav capital, Gligorov worked in several positions and became known as one of the proponents of economic reforms in the 1960s.

In the late 1980s, then-Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic invited him to join his economic reform team during a brief period of economic prosperity before nationalism began to pull the federation apart.

Gligorov returned to Skopje and in January 1991 became the first democratically elected president of Macedonia, which was a Yugoslav republic at the time. As other parts of the federation broke away from the federation in a series of wars, Macedonia seceded after a referendum, and Gligorov maintained his position at the helm of the newly created country.

Gligorov's office said the former president would be buried Tuesday in his family grave in the Alley of the Great at Skopje's Butel cemetery. He had expressed the wish to have a private funeral, and it was not immediately clear whether a state funeral would be arranged.

The government was expected to declare an official day of mourning Tuesday, during which flags would fly at half-staff, sporting and other events would be cancelled, and radios would broadcast only classical music.

Gligorov is survived by two daughters and a son. His wife, Nada, died in 2009.

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