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article imageNorth Macedonia, a country that changed its name

By AFP     May 4, 2019 in World

Small and landlocked North Macedonia, which votes Sunday in a presidential election, recently made headlines when it changed its name to end a dispute with Greece.

As voters head to the polls, here are five things to know about the Balkan state that emerged from Yugoslavia's breakup nearly 30 years ago:

- Name change -

Since independence in 1991, the country has tussled for ownership over the name Macedonia with Greece, which has a province with the same name.

This year, the neighbours sealed a 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.

- Deceptive flags -

Macedonia is home to around two million people, mostly Orthodox Slavs and an ethnic Albanian minority that makes up around a quarter of the population.

Passing through the northwest of Macedonia, 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, 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 with Macedonian armed forces.

The fighting was halted by the internationally-brokered Ohrid agreement, reached in August 2001, which provided greater rights for Macedonia's Albanian minority, including power-sharing, better representation in the public sector and official status for the Albanian language.

- Emigration -

Macedonia is one of the poorest countries in Europe with an average salary of 400 euros ($470). A fifth of its population is unemployed, with an even higher rate among the young.

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 Macedonians -- a quarter of the population -- live outside the country.

- Contested heroes -

Two historic personalities are a source of pride for Macedonians: Mother Teresa and Alexander the Great.

Both, however, are disputed.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje under the Ottoman Empire and was of Albanian ethnicity, prompting Albanians to also claim her as their own.

Alexander the Great, meanwhile, has been the focal point of an identity battle with Greeks over who can claim to the heritage of his ancient kingdom.

Under a previous government, Skopje enraged Athens by erecting huge statues of Alexander around the capital.

Since their rapprochement, North Macedonia has stripped his name from its international airport and a major highway.

- Sunshine state -

The national flag is a stylised yellow sun on a red backdrop. Macedonia boasts 280 sunny days a year, according to the Meteorological Institute.

However, Macedonia is the European nation that produces the least solar energy: 0.04 percent of total production, says the Agency for Energy.

The mountainous country is a paradise for hikers with three national parks, 50 lakes and thousands of kilometres (miles) of trails.

Its cuisine -- a mix of Ottoman, Mediterranean and Austrian-Hungarian influences -- is reputed to be among the finest in the Balkans, as is its wine.

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