Τετάρτη, 1 Δεκεμβρίου 2010

Skopje picks an expensive fight

Older article but still current...

Slavo-"Macedonia: Monumental Folly"

7 May 2009
With plans to put a giant statue of Alexander in its main square, Skopje picks an expensive fight. It is now deadly official, even if one still struggles to take it all seriously. The central square of the Macedonian capital is indeed going to get a series of bronze statues made in Florence, among them a giant one of Alexander the Great. As rumored, the statues are going to be pricey.
Rumors of such plans have been circulating for more than a year now, with critics often ridiculing what they see as Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's nationalist government's attempt to link the identity of ethnic Macedonians, who have long considered themselves a Slavic group, to the ancients.
Earlier this week, city officials were forced to confirm a confidential deal with an Italian foundry to cast the statues by the end of 2010 after a local daily claimed to have seen the contracts. The deal is said to be worth 10 million euros, a considerable amount of money in one of Europe's poorest countries.
The 12-meter-tall statue of the warrior emperor is to be erected on Skopje's main square, mounted on a 10-meter-high pedestal in the middle of a circular fountain. The 4.5 million euro monument will depict Alexander of Macedon riding his horse, Bucephalus.
Statues of less controversial figures will be cheaper. But Macedonian revolutionaries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nikola Karev, Goce Delcev, and Dame Gruev, also get to ride on horses. Along with them, bronze sculptures of four lions, each 5 meters high, have been commissioned. The lions will be placed on the sides of a bridge near the government building, explained the mayor of Skopje's Centar municipality.
This project is by no means a mere municipal affair, though. It is a part of a government initiative, launched late last year, to strengthen national consciousness, though no evidence was offered to suggest the said consciousness had been in crisis. Huge national flags will be erected at 16 symbolic locations in the country and a number of historical buildings are being reconstructed or spiffed up, all capped by the beautification of Skopje's central square with various statues, Alexander the Great riding in the middle.
GREEKS BEARING GRUDGES
The initiative must, of course, be viewed in the context of Macedonia's dispute with Greece over the country's official name. Greece opposes the use of "Republic of Macedonia" on the grounds that it implies aspirations on Skopje's part toward historical heritage that Athens regards as solely Hellenic, as well as the territory in northern Greece also called Macedonia. International efforts to solve the dispute have so far failed. Athens has blocked Macedonia's accession to NATO and threatens to do the same for Macedonia's membership in the EU.
In reality, the dispute is about Macedonian national identity. There have been many attempts in Greece to belittle the northern neighbor and even to deny the existence of ethnic Slav Macedonians as a distinct group. This has been partly motivated by the sustained drive of the modern Greek state to Hellenize its large Slav minority.
For well over a decade after declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Skopje's response to pressure from the south had largely been measured. Successive governments have sought to normalize relations with Greece by putting the name issue aside, while remaining firm about it. Even though many countries, including the United States, had recognized Macedonia under its official name, the Greek opposition meant the country was — and still is — referred to in international institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Skopje's approach started to change radically in 2006. Shortly after taking office, Gruevski unleashed a serious of measures aimed at arousing nationalist sentiments. While invoking the leaders of various Macedonian uprisings under the Ottomans was something that Macedonia's right-wingers had often done, Gruevski simultaneously encouraged until-then fringe attempts to claim bits of Greek ancient history as part of Macedonia's heritage.
The most bizarre element in this somewhat amusing new reality was the transformation of King Alexander of Macedon into something of a father figure to modern Macedonia. Skopje's rather modest airport was renamed Alexander the Great and so was the country's main highway. Many other places and buildings have been given ancient names usually associated with Greece since Gruevski came to power.
This has, of course, been highly divisive, even though judging by the triumphs of the prime minister's party in recent parliamentary and presidential elections, most of the electorate approves of the measures to remake Macedonia's identity.
There will surely come a hangover. It is likely to be quite unpleasant, not only because the country's binging on historical plonk, but also because the party is set to leave physical reminders of itself scattered around. What do you really do with a gigantic statue of Alexander the Great the morning you decide he has little to do with you, which is what you have known all along, but decided to ignore, for ignoring it somehow, inexplicably, felt good?
It goes without saying that the erection of Alexander's monument in downtown Skopje will make negotiations with Greece over the name more difficult, and not only because Athens now can point at facts, some cast in solid bronze, to support its claim that Skopje is intent on stealing its heritage and perhaps territory. The bronzes will cast Macedonia internationally as a funny little republic, though one whose confusion about itself and general nervousness make it quite difficult to love. Given that Macedonia badly needs international understanding and support, not just in relation to the name dispute, Gruevski's persistence on projects such as Alexander's statue is truly puzzling.
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By Tihomir Loza
Title:
Macedonia: Monumental Folly. By: Loza, Tihomir, Transitions Online, 12141615, 5/11/2009

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