Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Comment: Trajkovski - A Leader who Crossed the Divide
It is never easy to sum up a person's life. So while I felt I had a duty to portray the man I served for three years, I found the task discouraging.
When recalling the late president Boris Trajkovski, killed tragically in an air crash near Mostar one year ago, the best option is to remember his own words.
“I preach against all extreme options,” this unusual pastor-turned-politician wrote to Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a month before his death, convinced that on earth, as in heaven, there is enough space for all, regardless of the God they trust.
The tone was typical of a man whose faith impacted strongly on his politics, urging him constantly in the direction of forgiveness even when it was not always the surest way to survive politically.
Trajkovski’s political career involved taking big risks. He used all his authority to push for a peace agreement with Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian rebels. The result was the 2001 Ohrid peace deal, which paved the way for the creation of a multi-ethnic state and rescued the country from all-out war.
Trajkovski taught his fellow Macedonian politicians to understand that nationalist rhetoric was not the way ahead.
He introduced a new model for politicians that had hardly been seen in Macedonia. He was a real people’s man, direct, easy to approach, honest and above all human. If those attributes are now expected of all politicians, that is part of his legacy.
What, then, is the rest of the legacy of a president whose political ideas will surely outlive the brief time he spent in office, and which were not always hugely popular at the time.
For one thing, he put his small country on the world map. In May 2001, he prayed together with President George Bush. Alongside the most powerful man on earth, he knelt in a small chapel in the White House. This was an event that Macedonia, with a population about a fifth of New York City’s, is unlikely to witness the like of again.
The same year he met Russian president Vladimir Putin three times, including a meeting in the Kremlin that ran to three times the length envisaged in the protocol.
Next year, Chinese president Jiang Zemin organised a small military parade on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in honour of Trajkovski’s support for a one-China policy.
But the late president’s legacy cannot be measured only in summits with world statesmen. The content of his message was, if anything, far more important.
During the past decade, when most Balkan politicians passionately advocated intolerance of their neighbours, Trajkovski espoused tolerance.
When most were fanatically promoting ideas about the greater states to which they thought they were historically entitled, Trajkovski made it clear he was not interested in imitating their appeals to often fraudulent or partial readings of history.
Trajkovski was instrumental in the creation of the Adriatic Charter a joint effort of Macedonia, Croatia and Albania to advance their prospects of NATO membership.
In December 2002, the EU heads of State and Governments meeting in Copenhagen were surprised to see a letter signed by five Balkan presidents (who had never previously agreed on a single issue of significance) urging Europe to speed up the integration of the western Balkans into the EU.
Using his usual informal approach, the Macedonian president had persuaded his four counterparts in Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina to join his quest to advance their joint European destiny.
Two years ago, when the invasion of Iraq posed an awesome dilemma for Macedonia, Trajkovski - convinced of the importance of bolstering a strategic partnership with the US - pressed for and obtained Macedonian boots on the ground in Iraq.
Although he was elected as the candidate of one political party, Trajkovski showed he wanted to be president of all citizens by surrounding himself with bipartisan advisers.
Indeed, in his election in 1999, he won votes across the ethnic spectrum for the first time in Macedonia’s post-communist, democratic history.
Again showing his desire to reach across the country’s ethnic divide, in December 2003 he delivered a speech at the university in the mainly Albanian town of Tetovo in which he twice addressed the students in Albanian.
Nationalist criticism of such gestures was anticipated but what reverberates are the words of Cambridge professor Mark Veller, who described the speech as extraordinary and forward-looking.
Veller’s imagination was fired by the president’s main point. “Books and not guns are what will integrate us into Europe,” he told the students. “You are at the forefront of the battle without bullets, which has to be won by all, for the sake of us all.”
Trajkovski was the first ethnic Macedonian politician to enter a mosque during the Muslim holy feast of Ramadan, thus breaking a firm and long-standing informal taboo against such gestures in a country traditionally ruled by atheists and Macedonian nationalists.
During the first EU-Western Balkans summit in Porto Caras, Greece, in 2003, he met Kosovo’s Albanian leaders Ibrahim Rugova and Bajram Rexhepi. Again, he stepped over the walls of fear and suspicion that are so present among most Macedonians in relation to their Albanian neighbours.
None of this means that he was immune from normal human weaknesses, of course. He made several poor political judgements, especially concerning some of the people in his immediate circle.
If he were alive today, I would spell out all these criticisms to his face, because he respected it that way.
Alas, in his absence, tomorrow I will light a candle for him, remembering his last message he delivered one day before the tragedy. “Euro-Atlantic integration is not a goal that can be delivered by any one president or any one government in one term,” he said.
Internal cohesion and tolerance among Macedonians was the holy goal of a president who even political opponents described justly as a great man.
Stevo Pendarovski is president of the State Election Commission and former national security adviser to the late president Boris Trajkovski.
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