Statues & Styrofoam | Why is Macedonia Faking Its Own Past?
Skopje has spent €600 million on looking like an ancient capital, but now the city is falling apart
Something odd has been happening in Skopje. If you visited the Macedonian capital only five years ago, you wouldn’t have noticed. You wouldn’t have been privy to the dramatic transformation plans for the city. Back then – pre-2014 – a visit would have revealed the city’s low-slung scenescape, with unremarkable government buildings along the river, and certainly no hint of neo-classical or baroque architecture.
The city of that time was, as in some ways it still is today, modest. Proud of its local organic food and its historic connections with wine, Macedonia was a country that existed in the shadow of the Former Yugoslav Republic, striving to reinvent itself for the modern day.
“These buildings are an aggressive attempt to align the small landlocked country of Macedonia with the history of the Greek Civilisation of Macedonia”
And then, the government launched ‘Skopje 2014’. The project saw the installation of over 120 dramatic monuments, statues and façades in the city centre. It is heavily suspected (although not officially confirmed) that many of the impressive building façades are constructed with cheap materials – not that the government would admit it.
The project, in many ways, screams of political insecurity. Totally out of context with their surroundings, the façades appear like bizarre mirages, dotted around the city with no regard for the impossibility of creating a national history out of styrofoam.
The structures often feature huge towering Romanesque columns, statues of men on horseback, and – perhaps more problematically – women in all stages of the birthing cycle: pregnant, then holding a child.
At a nearby reimagining of the Arc de Triomphe, which, at 21 metres high, towers ludicrously over the city’s small roads, a plaque with a quote from Mother Teresa (Skopje’s most famous daughter) reads: “The greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
Harald Schenker, an independent expert on issues of democratic governance for Macedonia, explained the political inspiration behind Skopje 2014. He said: “Politically, the project was an attempt to write in stone an imagined ‘antique’ identity for the Macedonian nation, defining them not as Slavs, but as sons and daughters of Alexander the Great (of Macedon).”
A debate raged for 25 years between Greek Macedonia, in northern Greece, and the country of Macedonia, over the use and the rights to the Macedonian name. These buildings are an aggressive attempt to align the small landlocked country of Macedonia with the history of the Greek Civilisation of Macedonia.
After decades of back and forth (which led to Greece blocking Macedonia’s membership of both the EU and NATO) both nations finally came to an agreement this year and the country will now be known as the Republic of North Macedonia.
The architects of Skopje’s new look were a few years ahead of the politicians when it came to staking a claim to that heritage however. Their project is, if nothing else, an impressive undertaking. The scale of the façades, particularly of the governmental buildings by the river, can only truly be felt in person, and it’s worth visiting both during the day and by night to see the statues and columns bathed in both natural and man-made light.
Four years into the Skopje 2014 initiative, however, some of the buildings are reportedly falling into disrepair. And it’s definitely not universally popular.
When I visited, I went to a museum in the town’s disused train station where Alekso, a local tour guide, savaged the whole idea. He tapped on a ply board wall which separated two of the museum’s exhibits – nothing more than a temporary structure, it trembled and gave a hollow sound. “We call that the Skopje 2014 effect,” he warned.
Alekso warned that the project has caused a divide in Skopje. A divide between those who believed the buildings would put Skopje on the world stage, impressing international leaders with the city’s grandeur, and those who believed that the final reported spend, €560 million, was a gross misplacement of money which could have gone back into the struggling economy, or been spent on education, or the welfare system.
To put that spend into perspective, a good monthly income for Macedonians is around €250 a month. A seriously impressive salary might bring home double that.
And now, after their meteoric rise, the buildings are crumbling. “I can assure you that the ‘antique’ façades are made of styrofoam and plaster,” Harald Schenker tells me.
“It was visible during the construction, although no one will reveal that. As for the general quality, many of the buildings are leaking, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Theatre. The basement of the National Archive got flooded severely some time ago and a lot of documents were destroyed. You can see cracks on the façades, but also in offices.
“Of course, the building firms will assure you of the opposite.”
I’m told by anonymous locals that a few of the structures commissioned by the governing party are now being quietly taken down. The action comes in the wake of a new government which ascended after a bout of protests in 2015, spurred on by anger over the monuments.
None of the major monuments or statues have been removed yet; ongoing projects have been halted, including the construction of the city’s tallest glass building, which was reportedly in the process of being covered in foam and plastic to undergo its ‘neo-classical’ facelift.
I approached the construction firms Granit, STRABAG, Beton-Stip and Bauer BG – who were the main firms left in charge of the budget, according to the Balkan investigative network BIRN – to ask about the wear and tear.
Only one, STRABAG – who worked on the Skopje Old Theatre, ELEM Administrative Building, and Macedonian Philharmonic reimaginings – replied to my request about the materials used.
“The main materials were purchased by reputable companies in accordance with the technical specifications that were prescribed with tender documentation,” their spokesperson said, before listing a series of materials so luxury that they might have been meant for Tutankhamun himself.
The list began: “The chairs in the small and large hall are the product of Chinearredo Italy.”
It went on: “Tepisone 100% New Zealand wool purchased from Sintelon Serbia; Textile wallpapers from Fratelli Sangiorgio srl Italy; Curtains made of Indian silk made of Mega Serbia, Ceramic tiles Versace Italy, Glass mosaic Bizzaca Italy, Decorative crystal lights produced by Orion Austria; Panoramic elevators by Kleemann, Greece; Walls and ceilings were painted in 12 different decorative technics [sic] with colors produced by Arthe and Spiver, Italy; Marble tiles Crema Avorio; Ornamentation as most specific position in the contract was produced by Academia Restauro and Kasver C, Macedonia.”
When probed about sustainability, now that the buildings are reportedly in disrepair, the spokesperson added: “Very often STRABAG’s team makes suggestions, but the final decision is always according to the investors’ choice.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I asked whether the investors had decided to use cheaper materials than STRABAG had recommended, they stopped replying.
But alongside the aesthetic concern about the buildings fading from their former glory is a very real economic debate, which unites both the locals who think the buildings are a decent tourist attraction (one local I met told me that the buildings have given the city “a much needed facelift”) and those who think they are simply hideous.
“The estimated costs of around €700 million would have easily allowed for a renovation of all schools and kindergartens in country, or for the rehabilitation of all hospitals,” Harald Schenker calculates. “Skopje 2014 was first and foremost a means to make a lot of money.”
He believes that there may have been money syphoned off from the project too. “Current and future court cases might show the extent of government criminality involved here, and whether the money was used for private purposes, or for financing the political party in power then – or both.”
The solution, as Schenker sees it, is a simple one: “Most of the monuments and statues can and should be removed. The costs involved would minimal, but the symbolic effect could not be underestimated.”
Of course erasing history through the dismantling of monuments is often problematic (as the ongoing debate about Confederate memorials in the US prove) even if, ironically, the Skopje 2014 project was intent on rewriting Macedonia’s imperfect history in the first place.
Academic Michele Robecchi believes that, if the buildings continue to be removed, “the best course to follow would be to establish an independent committee and review each monument on its merit. Whether we like it or not, it is a page in the history of the city and it simply cannot be erased.”
The debate remains open, but regardless of what is decided, you might not have long to view Skopje’s oversized monuments. Whether it’s rainfall, collapsing materials or deliberate removal, these kitsch reconstructions of a mythical past look like their days are numbered. All of which means that if you want to form your own view on this very unique outpost of the Balkans, there’s no better time to go than now.
Budget airline Wizz Air is the only company to fly from London to Skopje direct, from £50 return.
Accommodation & travel advice:
Accommodation in Macedonia is also inexpensive. A room in a decent hotel will set you back as little as £40 a night.
Adam Bloodworth is a freelance writer, based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter.