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A Face-Lift in Macedonia May 20, 2011

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
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Despite Downturn, New Developments Are Rising in Skopje, Boosting National Pride but Stirring Up Debate

While the economic downturn has slowed new development in many European capitals, in Skopje, the capital of the Balkan Republic of Macedonia, a new grand design is unfolding along the banks of the Vardar River.

Dubbed Skopje 2014, the urban-renewal project aims to restore the city’s broken-down buildings and bolster the country’s national pride. But it also is stirring up cultural and political controversy.

When the project was announced a few years ago, there was some skepticism as to how much of it would advance beyond the drawing board. It involved more than 40 buildings, monuments and public spaces.

And in a country with a population of about two million, controversy ensued over whether the government should spend so much on what seemed to some to be symbolic projects.

But new sculptures of lions in a classical style now adorn a bridge over the Vardar in downtown Skopje. A monumental museum is under construction on the river’s banks, with Corinthian columns rising to the roof.

Work also is under way on a triumphal arch and other monuments and public buildings.

There is no denying Skopje could use a face-lift. The city still bears the scars of a devastating earthquake in 1963 that destroyed 80% of the city, killed more than 1,000 people and left more than 200,000 homeless.

But the project is about more than rejuvenating the city. “This project is more about creating a Macedonian national identity,” says Xavier Pinchart, general manager of Forton International, the Macedonian affiliate of property consultants Cushman & Wakefield.

That is where the controversy begins. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia following the Cold War, Macedonia has been locked in a battle with neighboring Greece over its name. There is a part of Greece called Macedonia, and the Greek government doesn’t want the nation of Macedonia to go by that name. Any visitor to Skopje, a crowded capital of 500,000 inhabitants that once belonged to Yugoslavia, can feel the cultural tug-of-war over the country’s name.

In addition to the conflict over the name, Macedonia is struggling with an internal cultural conflict. A visit to Skopje a decade ago would have found a country on the verge of civil war between its Orthodox Macedonian and Muslim Albanian citizens. Just as the majority Orthodox community builds churches and asserts its identity, the ethnic Albanians are busy building new mosques. In the villages tucked into the green hillside leading from the airport into Skopje, minarets from the village mosques rise above the rooftops.

But a decade of trying to recast the country as the cradle of Hellenic culture is having an impact. The bland Skopje international airport is now the Skopje Alexander the Great Airport. The city’s only four-star hotel is called Aleksander Palace. Archeologists are digging away at the city’s foundations to find proof Alexander was Macedonian.

Skopje 2014, like much of the general nation-building politics in this country, is largely the brainchild of the populist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who stands for re-election in June.

With the opposition Social Democrats in disarray, Mr. Gruevski looks set to win.

There have been some concerns among real-estate owners that the nationalist overtones embodied in the Skopje 2014 face-lift would drive away foreign investors. But these concerns may be overblown. Lately, a couple of new, modern office buildings have been built, and there is new investment in shopping centers and hotels.

Gazit-Globe Ltd., a large Israeli property company, is building a shopping center called G-Mall with 322,900 square feet of shopping area. Gazit also said it was considering building two office towers and a hotel in Macedonia.

Balfin Group, which describes itself as Albania’s largest privately owned company, is investing about €68 million ($96.4 million) with partners to build a shopping center called Skopje City Mall, which will boast 409,000 square feet of retail space and is expected to open in 2012.

Hoping to fill the niche for affordable accommodation for business travelers, Marriott International Inc. is building its first Balkan hotel in Skopje. Planned is a 180-room hotel in the city center near the historic Stone Bridge. Marriott said the hotel is expected to open for business in 2013.

“Shopping centers and hotels are probably the most suitable property investments at the moment, because there aren’t any malls or international hotels in Skopje,” says Forton International’s Mr. Pinchart.

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