SKOPJE – Cameras flash on Macedonia Square. There aren’t droves of foreign tourists in Skopje, but the Macedonian diaspora, back in the country on holiday, can’t believe their eyes. A huge mounted warrior is in the center of the capital, brandishing his sword skyward: counting the pedestal, the monument has a respectable height of 24 meters.
In the past two years, authorities have also erected a neoclassical rotunda and majestic statues of Czar Samuel, Byzantine emperor Justinian and Metodija Andonov-Cento, the first communist leader of the Republic of Macedonia, a former Yugoslavian state.
Guarding the entrance to the old Ottoman bridge are equestrian statues of the early 20th century “revolutionaries,” militants of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VRMO) who launched an insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in 1903. The VMRO was reborn from its ashes in 1990, when Yugoslavian Macedonia became independent.
The party came to power in 2006, steadfast in its resolution to stay there. The new Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, was 36-years-old and led a team of very young people who all shared an undying free-market creed. By multiplying fiscal and social dumping, they hoped to attract foreign investors. But nothing came, and the global crisis finished ruining the country’s feeble economic potential.
Two ethnic groups
Macedonia has two million inhabitants, with two groups living side by side but ignoring each other – the Slavic-Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority (a quarter of the country’s total population). Macedonia is a small state with a fragile identity stuck in the heart of the Balkans, and it is still contested by its neighbors.
The country has been an official candidate for European Union membership since December 2005, but the integration process is being blocked because of a conflict with Greece. Athens refuses that a state can be allowed to take the name “Macedonia,” which is considered “an integral part of Hellenic heritage.” The Republic of Macedonia is also stranded on the E.U.’s doorstep as well as NATOs, while the Bulgarian neighbors still consider their “Macedonian cousins” as “Western Bulgarians”…
Without any economic improvement or revival of the integration process, Gruevski’s government thinks it has found the solution: inventing a “national legend” from scratch, aimed at reassuring Macedonians of their identity. Statues sprouted in every town, and the Skopje airport and the highway that leads to Greece were renamed after Alexander the Great…
Pasko Kuman, national director of archeological digs, greets us in a cluttered office in the Culture Ministry attics. He is one of the main instigators of the Skopje 2014 project. “I’m accused of being responsible for the “Antikvizatzija,” “antiquisation” of Macedonia, which isn’t true,” he says. “Our goal is to show our country’s historical continuity.”
The archeologist dismisses the risk of offending the Albanian minority: on Macedonia Square there will soon be a giant statue of Mother Teresa, higher than Alexander’s. The saint was born in Skopje’s tiny Catholic Albanian community.
An authoritarian drift
There are no total numbers for the cost of the project. “The government said 80 million euros. According to several calculations, we’ve reached at least 370 million, but the expenses are on the payrolls of several entities, such as the state budget or municipal endowments. These are astounding sums for a small country on the verge of bankruptcy,” says Vladimir Milcin, a manager at the Open Society Foundation in Macedonia, who has been presented as both a “Yugoslav communist” and a “Greek agent” in media smear campaigns.
The rewriting of the past is coupled with a worrying authoritarian trend. Velija Ramkovski, the director of the main private television station in the country, who used to be favorable to the government, was sentenced last March to 14 years in prison for “tax fraud” after he became more critical of the regime. The former Interior Minister and VMRO dissident Ljube Boskovski got seven years imprisonment for “illegal financing” of his last electoral campaign.
In Skopje, fewer and fewer people dare to speak openly. N. used to work for a small foreign company, which was forced to hire a young manager, vetted by the party in power, under the threat of a tax inspection. The new manager quickly fired employees perceived as sympathetic to the opposition.
N. shows his 10-year-old daughter’s new school books with dismay. The history of Alexander the Great takes up much more space than Yugoslavia’s. “The teachers aren’t fooled, but they don’t have any other choice than to teach this nonsense; as they too risk losing their job.”