SKOPJE, North Macedonia: Small and landlocked North Macedonia, which votes Wednesday in a parliamentary election, made headlines when it changed its name to end a dispute with Greece last year.
As the country prepares for the poll, here are five things to know about the Balkan state that emerged from Yugoslavia’s breakup nearly 30 years ago:
Since independence in 1991, the country has tussled for ownership over the name Macedonia with Greece, which has a province with the same name.
In 2018, the neighbours sealed an historic deal to end their row by adding “North” to Macedonia’s name in exchange for Athens’ promise to stop blocking its efforts to join NATO and the European Union.
The deal was applauded by Western powers but criticised by nationalists on both sides of the border.
The country was welcomed into NATO after the accord and has received a greenlight to start EU membership talks, which may last for years.
North Macedonia is home to around 2 million people, mostly Orthodox Slavs and an ethnic Albanian minority that makes up around a quarter of the population.
Passing through the northwest, a traveller might think they were in Albania.
Under a 2005 accord, residents have the right to fly the red and black Albanian flag with the two headed-eagle, which can be seen in many villages.
After avoiding inter-ethnic war during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, North Macedonia found itself in crisis when ethnic Albanian rebels launched an insurgency in 2001.
Up to 200 people were killed during the seven-month conflict.
The fighting was halted by the internationally-brokered Ohrid agreement, reached in August 2001, which provided greater rights for the Albanian minority, including power-sharing, better representation in the public sector and official status for the Albanian language.
North Macedonia is one of the poorest countries in Europe with an average salary of €420 (US$475). Some 16 per cent of the population is unemployed, with an even higher rate among youth.
The weak economy has fuelled a large exodus abroad.
Authorities do not have official figures on emigration and have not organised a census since 2002, but according to the World Bank, about half a million citizens of North Macedonia – a quarter of the population – live outside the country.
“CAPITAL OF KITSCH”
The capital Skopje has earned a reputation for kitsch after the previous government erected grandiose neo-classical statues and facades around the city, lending it a theme-park like atmosphere.
The building spree was part of the former nationalist government’s battle with Greece over who can claim the heritage of historical figures like Alexander the Great.
A towering statue of the ancient king was erected in the centre of Skopje, but named “warrior on a horse” in order not to provoke the country’s southern neighbours.
After the name accord – known as the Prespa Agreement – was signed with Greece in 2018, authorities put a sign on the statue and others identifying them as part of Hellenic history.
During their rapprochement, North Macedonia stripped Alexander the Great’s name from its international airport and a major highway.
LAND OF HONEY
In 2020 North Macedonia made cinematic history thanks to the success of the documentary Honeyland.
The enchanting non-fiction film became the first to get Oscar nominations for both documentary and best foreign movie.
The Oscars went to other hands, but the main character of the film, traditional beekeeper Hatidze Muratova, became a star.
She won hearts and minds of viewers with her sustainable approach to beekeeping, which reverberated through the film as a lesson in environmental stewardship.
“Half for me, half for the bees,” she says of her collection of the honey harvest.
The documentary was shot over three years by local directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska.