Mar 1st 2011
by T.J. | SKOPJE
OBELIX, the fat Gaulish friend of cartoon character Asterix, has a catchphrase: "These Romans are crazy!" Walk around Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and you find yourself thinking the same about Macedonians. I don’t mean this to be snide. But the pace of building in and around the city does bring to mind the Mansions of the Gods.http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2011/03/macedonias_ethnic_disharmony
Skopje has long needed sprucing up. But opponents of Nikola Gruevski, who have long accused the prime minister of populist nationalism, will hardly be dissauded by the nature of the construction boom (which the government has christened Skopje 2014). With an election in the offing, Mr Gruevski will no doubt enjoy taking credit for the new structures mushrooming throughout the city centre.
In Skopje’s central square a massive plinth is being built. It will soon be topped with a huge statue of Alexander the Great. Many Macedonians could not give a fig for Alexander. But they will be delighted to see the Greeks, who have been blocking Macedonia's EU and NATO integration over an objection to the country's name, turn apoplectic with rage when it is unveiled. The Greeks accuse the Macedonians of appropriating Alexander and trying to steal their Hellenic culture.But that is just one element. Museums, domes, a new foreign ministry, a bridge bedecked with statues of lions and, as in the Asterix book, a triumphal arch are all springing up, transforming the centre of town. Some of the buildings suit the landscape, but the new constitutional court (pictured), with its massive Corinthian columns, seems a trifle overpowering.
Skopje 2014, which we first wrote about last year, has accentuated bitter disputes between the majority Orthodox Macedonians and Muslim Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia's population. Whenever someone suggests building or rebuilding a church in Skopje, the Albanians demand the same for a mosque. Tensions invariably mount.
The most vivid example brought small groups of Macedonians and Albanians to fisticuffs. Recently, a church-like steel skeleton appeared on the site of an old church inside Skopje's fortress (pictured). The authorities claimed they were merely building a museum in the shape of a church. But Albanians reply that under the original church is an older Illyrian structure; as, they say, they are descended from Illyrians, the site should be theirs. Construction has now stopped, but the issue reveals the delicate balance between Macedonia's two communities, in which religion, identity, land and power are all deeply entwined.
The erection of statues of historical figures and grandiose public buildings looks like an expression of ethnic Macedonian identity. But they are not the only ones; their structures are merely the most visible to outsiders visiting Skopje's centre. Visit Albanian districts in and around the capital and you come across hundreds of new mosques.
Macedonia’s Albanians have a reputation of being much more religious than their brethren from Albania or Kosovo. Their mosque-building has even begun to alarm Albanians from Albania, where they have been labelled as "Talibans" in television chat shows.
Yet the Democratic Union for Integration, a Macedonian Albanian party, which is in coalition with Mr Gruevski, has strictly secular roots. So one wonders whether there is a sub-plot to the mosque-building frenzy. In most cases, a new mosque declares not only the glory of Islam, but that the land on which is stands is Albanian. The paradox is that you can find Albanian-controlled town halls flying American flags a stone’s throw from new mosques sporting Saudi Arabian ones from their minarets.
This is one reason why the church-museum affair is so touchy. Many Macedonians say they keep quiet about the often illegally-built mosques for the sake of social harmony. That is why it irks them that an attempt to build something that merely resembles a church becomes a huge incident. Albanians, by contrast, see Skopje 2014 and related projects like the church-museum as a project designed to shove “Macedonian-ness” down their throats.
To be continued.