SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonians marked a national day of mourning Tuesday for Kiro Gligorov, their first democratically elected president who shepherded the tiny Balkan nation through a bloodless secession from the former Yugoslavia.
Gligorov, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1995, was to be buried Tuesday in his family's grave in the capital of Skopje. He had asked for a private funeral.
Macedonian flags flew at half-staff, sporting events were canceled and public radio suspended normal programing and was playing only classical music.
The former president, 94, died Jan. 1 in his sleep at his home in Skopje and his death was announced the following day.
To many Macedonians, Gligorov came to be considered the "father of the nation."
"He was wise and experienced politician, an iconic figure of the father of the nation. We have a respectful and dignified first president whose peaceful policy was recognized and fully respected by world leaders," said retired lawyer Metodija Nikolovski.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Gligorov as "patriot and true statesman," while Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski paid tribute to the former president's historic role in the country's independence.
"Kiro Gligorov will be remembered as a man and politician who had serious merit and contributions to the liberation and the creation, development and international recognition of Macedonia," Gruevski said in condolences to Gligorov's family.
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.
He served two consecutive presidential terms, leading the nation from January 1991 to November 1999.
Gligorov narrowly survived an assassination attempt that cost him an eye in October 1995, when a bomb targeted his car as he headed to work. The bombing killed his driver and a bystander and left him with severe head injuries. Gligorov emerged from a roughly four-month hospital stay with deep facial scars.
No suspects were ever arrested, and the investigation has made little headway since then.
The early period of his presidency was overshadowed by a bitter dispute with southern neighbor Greece over the newly independent nation's name — a dispute that continues to this day. Athens objects to the use of the name "Macedonia," saying it implied territorial ambitions on its own northern province of the same name.
Gligorov also faced domestic unrest, with the republic's large ethnic Albanian minority pressing for greater cultural and political autonomy.
"Macedonia is all we have," he used to say.