Skopje 2014: an unexpected master-class in nation-building

Skopje 2014 is a gargantuan public works project to transform the historic centre of the Macedonian capital, but it comes at a time of economic difficulty and in a context of fierce criticism.

The Museum of Archeology under development Photo: Gonzosft

The Museum of Archeology under development Photo: Gonzosft

Some twenty new, landmark buildings are to be erected in the immediate vicinity of the city centre – among these a number of national museums, such as those of the ‘Macedonian National Struggle’ and of Archeology,  a new national theatre and a number of buildings to house the public administration – with all hoped to be completed for 2014. In addition to these, a great number of important structures, eg. the Macedonian Parliament, will receive new façades to engender a newfound consistency of classical architecture across the city. This sudden renovation imbues the city with state-of-the-art housing for the public bureaucracy and a number of modern touristic hubs, with all attempting to evoke the iconic in their architecture. Truly Skopje will become somewhat of a marvel in the Balkans.

And this is before mention of the cohort of new monuments set to ornament the city’s boulevards and plazas. More than forty statues, fountains and adornments are planned, all affecting a heritage stretching throughout the region’s ancient history and mythology. A number of bridges will be renovated and two entirely new pedestrian bridges are to be constructed, all being ornamented in keeping with the other elements of the project – to affect the classical and the grandiose.

Controversies economic…

Yet such vast public works are expensive; in addition, when of this magnitude, and particularly when of a large part aesthetic nature, they do not arrive naturally but by government funding. The initial 80 million euros prophesied by the government may well reach up to half a billion (as proclaimed by the notably critical journalist Jasna Koteska in 2011). Either way one could see how such vast, and perhaps frivolous public expenditure could be an affront in a nation suffering economic anaemia and high unemployment – estimated at 31.3% last year, though decreasing.

… and historical

Yet tourism is not all that has been kept in mind. A kitsch approach to educing national identity has been one of the key criticisms levelled at the Republic of Macedonia – which must forego its constitutional name in favour of ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ in international diplomacy so as to mitigate a bitter dispute with Greece over the name and proclaimed heritage of the Macedonians, which are shared with the ‘Macedonia’ region of Greece. Museums and statues exalting Macedonian history double as educational tools both for citizens and visitors in expounding a carefully constructed notion of Macedonian identity.

"The man on a horse" Photo: Darko Nikolovski

‘Warrior on a horse’ Photo: Darko Nikolovski

One can of course see how this historical element of the project acts as a drawback, where it hampers an already taut relationship with Greece and Bulgaria which can impede its progress in acceding to the European Union – which is proclaimed to be a key goal of the present government. The iconic ‘Warrior on a Horse’, which forms the centrepiece of Skopje 2014, is clearly intended to be Alexander the Great and thus is a major provocation to Macedonia’s southern neighbours, who claim him as a historical figure of their own. It does not do the country well to exacerbate tensions.

Whilst the economy is not completely at the mercy of the present eurocrisis, retaining a growth-rate of 3.6% last year, any hopes for a touristic dividend may not be so quickly fulfilled – or at least not from Western Europe – even when such prolonged and expensive projects as this rarely do have short-term returns, and given that the very essence of Skopje 2014 could be surmised in the word ‘posterity’. That being said, Macedonia is relatively cheap to many European tourists and nations of similar price levels, within and without the EU, such as Croatia, Latvia and the Union’s general periphery, have become increasingly popular holiday destinations. In time, Skopje 2014’s initial investments can be repaid and the city will of course be unique; it gives the nation some iconography to set it apart and, once it has become assimilated and accepted, it gives Macedonians a further dressing to their identity – however new.

Matthew James

To go further (in French) : Skopje 2014 : l’heure du bilan (20/02/2013) and Skopje 2014, un projet polémique (21/02/2012)