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Let Them Eat Alexander the Great Statues
An aesthetic overhaul of Macedonia’s capital was supposed to inspire a stronger national identity. It inspired a national protest movement instead.
SKOPJE, Macedonia — The 300 denar ($5.50) fee at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle covers not just single admission entry, but also the services of a mandatory guide. For 90 minutes, visitors have no choice but to be escorted through its full-room dioramas of foreign soldiers attacking Macedonian peasants and past its life-size wax models of Macedonian rebels plotting to free the country from the Ottomans.
The museum’s mission isn’t pedagogical so much as patriotic, and the guides are there to ensure that the Macedonian history on display is properly interpreted. The young man who recently led a group of Japanese tourists had them stop before a diorama depicting the 1903 declaration of the Kruševo Republic. He declared that the short-lived state was a precursor to the modern-day state of Macedonia. “It was the first republic in the Balkans,” he boasted, before moving on to a room about the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
The museum is a centerpiece of Skopje 2014, a $730 million building spree designed to give the capital an aesthetic overhaul — and to finally provide Macedonia with a strong national identity. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who initiated the project, envisioned transforming Skopje from a drab but funky post-Yugoslav city to a city of kitschy neoclassical monuments to Macedonian glory.
But if Skopje 2014 has managed to rally the country, it has not been in the way Gruevski would have wished. Rather than draw inspiration from the projects, a growing number of Macedonians are treating them as an expression of hubris.
The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Sovereignty and Independence and Museum of the Victims of the Communist Regime – to use its full name – isn’t the only Skopje 2014 project that leaves little to the imagination of its visitors. The center of the city is now dotted with expensive artworks that skirt the line between kitsch and propaganda. A statue known officially as the “Equestrian Hero”— but widely presumed to be Alexander the Great — stands 22 meters (72 feet) high atop a statue, surrounded by lions, while Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays nearby. The entire structure cost more than 8 million euro, or about $9 million; just across the Vardar River stands a bronze 29 meter (95 feet) statue of his father, Philip of Macedon, the ancient warrior king, which came with a similar price tag.
There’s also a monument under construction to Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian born in Skopje, and a revamped archaeology museum, meant to reinforce Macedonian claims to a unique relationship with Western antiquity. Even the city’s more prosaic buildings have gotten an overhaul: The headquarters of Macedonia’s water supply and sewage agency has been given a neoclassical dome, at a cost of $22.6 million.
Since its outset, Skopje 2014 has been criticized by many Macedonians as an expensive and heavy-handed attempt to fabricate a national identity. But the project has more recently been at the center of the protests, dubbed the “Colorful Revolution,” that have rocked the Macedonian capital.
For the past nine weeks, several thousand protesters have met each evening to march through the streets to the country’s Parliament, pausing along the way to drench key buildings with brightly colored paint using balloons and squirt guns. The square containing Alexander has become a particular target: Protesters have made a brightly colored mess out of the Porta Macedonia, a widely mocked triumphal arch-like structure made of concrete but painted white to resemble limestone. Some of the vandals include messages: “I don’t pay taxes for this,” “I love Macedonia,” “I color, and I demand justice.”
The protests have mostly centered on allegations of corruption. For many, the structures of Skopje 2014 have come to symbolize Gruevski’s 10 years in office, which was marked by wasteful spending and a lack of transparency. But the anger directed at the city’s newest structures also signal why attempts to drastically remake the character of a young country are liable to fail.
Modern-day Macedonia, which only became a country recognized by the United Nations in 1993, has struggled with its identity since infancy, in part due to a tangled past. The area that is now Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years before the First Balkan War in 1912; up until that point, most ethnographers classified its inhabitants as ethnic Bulgarians. (The languages are similar, and the question of whether Macedonian is its own language or a Bulgarian dialect remains politically charged.) In the decades following, the area was occupied variously by Serbia, then Bulgaria, before joining the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, under which it underwent a policy of “Serbianization.” It was only when Macedonia became part of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, in the wake of World War II, that Yugoslav authorities began promoting a distinct Macedonian identity and a distinct language.
In 1991, Macedonia emerged as its own country from the dissipation of Yugoslavia and began to establish itself on the world stage – but with little assistance from its neighbors. Modern-day Bulgaria denies the existence of a separate Macedonian language; Serbia does not acknowledge the existence of a separate Macedonian Orthodox Church. And there is the country’s ongoing bitter dispute with Greece, which continues to block the country’s accession to international organizations like NATO and the European Union because of its name. (Greece, which has its own “Museum of the Macedonian Struggle” in Thessaloniki, claims the name Macedonia already belongs to a northern Greek province, and that the name is a signal of the country’s ambitions to claim territory beyond its borders). Macedonia was admitted only provisionally to the U.N. under the name “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” and has altered both its flag and constitution in response to Greek pressure.
According to Tamara Causidis, an editor at Macedonia’s Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which has been tracking the rising cost of Skopje 2014, the country is now stuck in an identity crisis. Authorities would prefer to emphasize Macedonia’s role in Western antiquity, which they see as a key component of its rivalry with Greece, while many Macedonians say they see their heritage in the Slavic Byzantine history of the ninth century, which produced saints like Cyril and Methodius, not world-conquering men on horseback.
Hence Skopje 2014’s attempts to fashion a proud ancient history linked to the foundations of Western civilization. Gruevski made nation-building a priority in Macedonia when he came to power in 2006. In addition to the faux-classical overhaul of his nation’s capital, he sought to stake out the country’s claims to the legacy of Alexander the Great, whom Macedonian nationalists view as their own, much to the consternation of neighboring Greece, which also claims him. Upon taking office, Gruevski promptly renamed the country’s principal airport “Alexander the Great International Airport,” invited descendants of Alexander the Great to visit Skopje in 2008, and in 2009 named the country’s primary stadium after Philip of Macedon.
The country’s relationship to Alexander the Great is complicated. Before Gruevski’s coming to power, the ancient king had never been a figure associated with the history of Macedonia, said veteran journalist Borjan Jovanovski. And Gruevski’s efforts seem to have done little to alter how Macedonians feel about the man supposed to be their national hero: A study conducted in 2013 by the Skopje-based think tank Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities on how Skopje 2014 is shaping national identity found that fewer than 10 percent of people saw Alexander as Macedonia’s most important historical figure, nor did they feel a particular attachment to the era of antiquity he represents. The study also concluded that, even several years in to the Skopje 2014 project, 32 percent of respondents still felt a sense of cultural inferiority and were confused about their identity.
Gruevski’s exercise in creating a sense of Macedonian-ness has conspicuously overlooked large swaths of the population. The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, for instance, makes no mention of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians, who are estimated to make up between 25 and 30 percent of the population. (The last census was in 2002, and authorities have been hesitant to commission another because of political controversy over migration and demographics.) In the rest of Skopje 2014, too, with the exception of Mother Teresa, there are very few structures acknowledging the country’s Albanian heritage. The question of how Albanians fit into Macedonia is a fraught one: The country only narrowly averted a civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians took up arms to demand additional rights, including the use of Albanian as a national language.
But the Colorful Revolution protesters are angry about more than the clumsy efforts at constructing a national identity. Gruevski held power from 2006 until January, when he stepped down as part of an EU-mediated deal after it was alleged that he personally ordered the tapping of 20,000 phone numbers, including those of his close associates. Contents of the phone calls were leaked by the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, which also raised allegations that Gruevski and key allies had organized election fraud, attempted to cover up a police killing and sought to control the judiciary. An investigation last year by the European Commission found that Gruevski misused national security services – led during his premiership by his cousin Sašo Mijalkov — to “control top officials in the public administration, prosecutors, judges, and political opponents.”
After 40,000 people protested in May 2015, setting up camp outside the Macedonian government building, Gruevski stepped down and a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the claims contained in the wiretaps. But when Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov announced last month that he was pardoning all those under investigation — 56 people, including Gruevski and opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who disclosed the wiretaps — the protests resumed. And Gruevski’s pet project has become a target.
What might have been an – admittedly grandiose — symbol of a country’s aspirations to join the West has instead come to represent wasteful spending. When Skopje 2014 was initially announced in 2010, the government claimed it would cost 80 million euros. To date it has cost 640 million euros ($730 million) and the price tag keeps going up as construction continues, according to calculations by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network Macedonia. The total could exceed 1 billion euros before it is completed, said Causidis. That amounts to approximately 96 million euros per year to date or 3 percent of the nation’s annual budget — an allocation similar to what the health ministry receives.
“The whole process is symbolic of the reign of Gruevski,” Causidis said. The tendering procedures lack transparency, she said, and construction often happens overnight, without any announcement.
The former prime minister’s voice can be heard in many of the wiretapped conversations talking about Skopje 2014: suggesting ideas for sculptures, recommending fountains in Rome that should be mimicked, and discussing how exactly to upholster the city’s new double-decker London-style buses.
Gruevski has defended his creations. In a book celebrating the inauguration of the Museum of Macedonian Struggle in October 2012, he wrote, “The opposition, some of the media, and some of the experts showed a great resistance to the entire ‘Skopje 2014’ project, even while the project was still in the process of preparation … a lot of speculations were produced and a lot of untrue information, ridicule, manipulations and lies were aired.”
The Colorful Revolution protesters, however, remain unconvinced. The protests continue – and seem to have finally found some traction. Under heavy international pressure, Macedonian president Ivanov first partially retracted his decision to grant immunity, revoking it from 22 of the 56 under investigation. Then, on Monday, he completely revoked all 56 of the pardons, though continued to insist that they would have fostered reconciliation. The protesters have vowed to continue until their other demands have been met, including the formation of an interim government, which would set the country on the path to credible elections, and the dropping of charges against the dozens of demonstrators arrested for vandalism.
But if the protests continue, so does the construction – and the controversy. Just last month, residents in the city’s Centar municipality awoke to find two statues of Albanian heroes, long-promised as part of the Skopje 2014 effort, mysteriously erected overnight. The local government denies any involvement.
Photo credit: Dominic Dudley/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images