Τρίτη, 7 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010

Article in the FINANCIAL TIMES on the ETHNIC IDENTITY in FYROM


Renovation inflames Macedonian identity row
By Neil MacDonald
Published: September 3 2010

...In the main square of Skopje’s city centre, Goce Delcev and Dame Gruev sit astride their horses, gazing down at pedestrians 5 metres below. The 19th-century freedom fighters, cast in bronze in Italy arrived four months ago in the first wave of an expensive renewal project for the Macedonian capital.

“If Gruev were alive today, he would be proud to see that we Macedonians are still here,” said a man visiting from another part of the country. “By God, my blood pressure must have dropped from 200 to 100 when I saw these.”

EDITOR’S CHOICE
Audio slideshow: Building ethnic identity in Macedonia - Sep-03.Opinion: Bring the Balkans back into the heart of Europe - Jul-27.Balkan disputes simmer under surface - Jun-02.Macedonia’s Ivanov poised for election win - Apr-05.Poll gives Macedonia chance to impress EU - Mar-21.Alexander’s ‘descendants’ boost Macedonian identity - Jul-18..The urban overhaul, complete with Ionic columns on government buildings, forms Skopje’s most permanent reply yet to the 19-year-old argument with Greece over who owns the name Macedonia.

The 17 planned monuments, costing €10m ($12.8m, £8.3m) by conservative estimates, are part of a wider urban plan with a price tag of €80m or more – a large sum for a small country struggling to climb out of recession.

Yet fallout from the global crisis is just one of the setbacks for the former Yugoslav republic in the past two and a half years.

Skopje was poised to join Nato in April 2008, along with Croatia and Albania. But Greece, with a northern province also called Macedonia, vetoed its neighbour’s membership under the same name. The centre-right prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, has responded by proclaiming the Macedonian ethnic identity even more loudly.

Greece could block Macedonia from joining the European Union. While Washington and Brussels see the 19-year-old “name dispute” as obscure and tiresome, those involved tend to see it as a take-no-prisoners battle over identity, including ownership of the legacy of a classical hero, Alexander the Great.

To stake its claim, Skopje is building a colossal statue of Alexander. Costing more than €3m, it will tower 22 metres – the equivalent of eight storeys – over the city’s central square, according to officials. There are also plans for new government buildings, a refurbished theatre and a library. Vladimir Todorovic, mayor of the city’s central district, says Skopje needs to replace the “ugly or plain communist architecture” that has predominated since an earthquake in 1963.

Although there are some supporters of the building spree, they are a minority of the Balkan country’s 2m inhabitants. Nearly two-thirds oppose the “Skopje 2014” renewal project, mainly for financial reasons, according to polls by the US National Democratic Institute.

Critics have derided the project as “kitsch”, and warned that the final bill would be closer to €200m. The government’s refusal to publish the cost of Skopje 2014 has only added to speculation about overruns.

“There has been no consensus and no public debate,” says Erwan Fouéré, EU special representative in Skopje. “We would have liked to see greater consultation of the public on such a broad, sweeping urban renewal plan for the capital city, especially since public money is involved.”

The Macedonian economy shrank 0.7 per cent last year, with gross domestic product at about $9.2bn, according to official figures.

Critics have ridiculed the statue scheme through anti-Skopje 2014 websites. Mr Gruevski’s coalition allies have also expressed reservations over upgrades of roads and schools on hold for the project.

“I personally agree with those who have made this criticism,” says Fatmir Besimi, minister of economy and ethnic Albanian party member. “The country has needs for infrastructure. If we spend money from the budget, it should have higher multiplier effects.”

Statues are an odd priority during a period of tighter budgets and rising poverty, foreign observers agree. “This is happening while many schools lack flushable toilets,” a western diplomat says.

But the treasury is under control of Mr Gruevski’s party. Zoran Stavreski, minister of finance, declines to answer questions on Skopje 2014.

Another risk, US and EU officials say, is to inflame ethnic tensions, already at their worst since the brief ethnic Albanian insurgency of 2001.

Ethnic Albanians, accounting for perhaps a quarter of the population, have accepted the Macedonian state only in the expectation of Nato and EU integration. They do not buy into the state-sponsored national identity. National heroes for minority groups have been added to the statue programme but only as an afterthought, critics say.

Nor do all Macedonian patriots feel attached to Alexander the Great.

Ljubco Georgievski, a hardliner who split from the ruling party, says: “We have a good 100 years of history to talk about”, starting with resistance against the Ottoman Empire. “Why do we have to claim to be the oldest nation in Europe?”

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