In a move that has upset the Greeks, Alexander the Great has made a huge comeback in Macedonia.
A giant statue bearing an uncanny resemblance to the warrior king – although, officially, no one dares call it that – has been erected in the heart of Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. Seated upon his favourite steed, the classical hero surveys the capital from the vantage point of Plostad Makedonija, Skopje’s central square. At 22 metres, or eight storeys high, the statue dwarfs its surroundings.
But, then, that is the idea.
Amid great clouds of dust, giant bulldozers perpetually gnaw at the ground as the former Yugoslav republic undergoes one of Europe‘s biggest urban renewal schemes.
And it all takes place against the backdrop of a 20-year-long dispute with Greece, its southern neighbour, over ownership of the name Macedonia.
The sculpture, part of a building bonanza that has also erected gothic edifices, grandiose bridges and a triumphal arch, has been billed as the project’s crowning glory.
For the overtly nationalist government in Skopje, the overhaul is more eloquent than any other propaganda tool in its long battle with Greece over the country’s name, and the right to claim Alexander as a national hero.
With Greece in economic crisis, it couldn’t come at a better time.
“This is our way of saying [up yours] to them,” Antonio Milososki, the state’s former foreign minister, told the Guardian in an interview in October 2010.
“Alexander the Great, in fact, had no passport or birth certificate,” he said, sitting in the foyer of a government building brimming with relics dating back to the warrior king. “This project is about asserting Macedonia’s identity at a time when it is under threat because of the name issue. We all live in a geographic area where we share a common past but our attitude towards history is inclusive. The Greeks’ is exclusive.”
Greece has long held that the desire of their Slav neighbours to call themselves Macedonian conceals territorial ambitions over its own adjacent province of Macedonia.
Since the landlocked country’s proclamation of independence in 1991, Alexander the Great has been at the centre of the controversy. The statue is the former Yugoslav republic’s biggest claim yet to his legacy, though in recent years Skopje has also named its airport and highway after him.
Re-elected this year as prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, a hardline nationalist who started out as a bank clerk before turning to politics, has pursued the building programme with gusto, ordering a new archaeological museum, national theatre, philharmonic hall and scores of rococo building facades and sculptures to be erected at record speed. A statue of Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, is, at 28 metres, expected to be even taller than that of the warrior king. But the administration has been hesitant about releasing costs for the project, conservatively estimated at more than €200m.
Most people, according to polls, regard the campaign as overly kitsch, even if some also think it brings a little joy to the dullness imposed on the capital by communist apparatchiks after Skopje was levelled by an earthquake in 1963.
“The intention, they say, is to make Skopje look like Paris,” says Danica Pavlovska, who heads Macedonia’s Association of Architects. “But the scale of the project for a city this size is all wrong and frankly the pace is frightening.”
With unemployment nudging 35%, and at least a third of the population living below the poverty line, the scheme has provoked violent protests and grassroots opposition.
“I don’t think it’s the time for statues. People need to eat, work and live,” says Minira Krivaneva, an ethnic Albanian emerging from her home in the central district of Duqanxhik. “None of the people in my family works and often there is no money to pay the bills. We are 14 people and our only means of survival is the €30 we get from social security every month.”
For intellectuals, who have become increasingly incensed that their capital is being turned into a mini Las Vegas, the scheme is the embodiment of “retarded nationalism” by a conservative government bent as much on giving the metropolis a facelift as changing the nation’s history. “It is not only kitsch, it smacks of social engineering,” says Sasho Ordanoski, a prominent political analyst. “What we are seeing is a typically populist regime building a nationalist superstate. By trying to reform our ethnic identity, to say we are not Slavs but hark back to an older age, they have resorted to a process of antiquitisation.”
Petar Arsovski, another commentator, said: “We never grew up hearing about the feats of Alexander the Great. If there was any mention of him, it was very obscure. Gruevski is turning this city into a theme park, a place that looks a bit more like Las Vegas every day.”
But across town, in the communist-era headquarters of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Professor Blaze Ristovski disagrees. The silver-haired academician has spent a lifetime studying the history of his beloved country and for him the statue-building amounts to a “very useful” exercise.
“We are a young state and prior to 1944 when the communists took over, we simply couldn’t build anything other than churches and mosques,” he says. “Only with the creation of our own country were we at liberty to present our past and culture and show our struggle for Macedonian statehood. These monuments don’t just fill a gap, they are a very useful way of presenting ourselves as a nation.”
Internationally, the mini-state is still forced to call itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – the title it was given by the UN shortly after independence – even if 132 countries have recognised it as the Republic of Macedonia, its constitutional name. Greeks refer to their neighbour as Fyrom, with its citizens often called Skopjians, though there are signs Greece is shifting its stance.
“Greece has moved a lot on this matter,” said Stavros Lambrinidis, the Greek foreign minister. “We have made it clear that we are willing to accept a compromise, a compromise that does not offend or insult anyone by agreeing to mixed name with a geographic delineation … All this story with the statues is not useful.”
Recently, the Gruevski government stopped referring to the statue as Alexander the Great, preferring instead “warrior on a horse”.
A breakthrough, perhaps. What is certain is that the Greeks are watching – closely.
This article was amended on 15 and 17 August 2011. A reference to the main stadium in Skopje being named after Alexander the Great has been removed, as the stadium was named after Philip II. This article also said that Skopje was levelled by an earthquake in 1953, and that 120 countries recognise it by its constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia. This has been corrected. In addition, it said that the state’s former foreign minister spoke to the Guardian in a recent interview. This too has been corrected.