In-depth | Skopje

The (Un)Certain Future of the ‘Skopje 2014’ Megalomaniac Project

By - 15.01.2019

Will 2019 bring change to Macedonia’s capital city?

Before the infamous departure from government in April 2017, the conservative right wing government of The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and former prime minister Nikola Gruevski erected 34 monuments and at least 80 sculptures as part of the project they called “Skopje 2014.” Now, a year and a half after the arrival of the new social democratic party, The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), many are left to wonder what will happen with this city transformation project, the costs of which totaled 684 million euro, and which some experts have called “urbicide.”

Since the beginning of the project, 42.5 million euros from state and municipal budgets were spent on the  construction and placement of monuments and sculptures of disputable artistic value, alone, often with questionable grounds in historical events.

Monument dedicated to Byzantine emperor Justinian I, behind which is the monument of the author of the first printed Macedonian grammar book Georgi Pulevski from the XIX century, while the family of Alexander the Great may be seen in the background. Photo: Bojan Blaževski.

The 8.3 million euro sculpture dedicated to ancient ruler Alexander the Great, is an example of the gigantic sculptures of historical figures dominating Skopje, today. Others depict various kings of ancient Macedonia, followed by sculptures of Prometheus, and the early deceased Macedonian singer Toše Proeski, or willows planted in the Vardar river.

This tittup with the past and the present is based on nationalist ideas of Nikola Gruevski’s government. In their propaganda, Skopje was described as the “field of concrete” and a role model for “the grayness of socialist realism.” In one pamphlet that was distributed in Skopje at the time, there is a description of the new look of the capital contributing to those who “used their wide open eyes to see European cities and dream about the capital, about pride, and not an inferior suburb.”

Other leaflets like it were distributed through Macedonian media over the course of the promotion of the “Skopje 2014” project in February 2010, and this kind of propaganda continued in following years.

One of the pamphlets promoting the “Skopje 2014” project, which were shared during February 2010.

Now, the megalomania of construction has surpassed the borders of this country and led to Skopje obtaining the label of the European capital of kitsch, which is something the current government is seeking to change.

Review and revision of central monuments

Before coming to power in 2017, the government of Zoran Zaev had promised to halt further implementation of the “Skopje 2014” project, and revise all its aspects. In the pre-election campaign during 2016, Zaev promised “thorough review of the project ‘Skopje 2014’”.  

“Once [the project is] cleared of abuses and crime, we will take measures for revitalization of the central city area on which this so-called project was constructed,” Zaev and his party, SDSM, promised in their program.

On the basis of results of this revision, they promised to decide what would be done with monuments left from Gruevski’s time. Gruevski recently fled the country in order to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption and sought asylum in Hungary. Furthermore, Zaev’s party promised that based on the results of the revision, a decision would be made about which former officials would be prosecuted for abuse of power and corruption and embezzlement of  money in relation to the project.

Already, the city has seen the removal of one of the erected monuments. Around 18 months after change of government, the monument depicting the controversial figure Andon Lazov Janev (1866-1953) was taken down. Janev was part of Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization that operated in the northern part of Greece. Even though he identified as ethnic Bulgarian, Macedonian nationalists consider him as ethnic Macedonian. By some, he is considered an assassin; by others, a freedom fighter. The monument dedicated to this controversial figure from the historical IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) was standing in front of the palace of justice in Skopje, and  critics saw it as a symbol of interference of the then government in the work of the judiciary.

By February 22, 2018, the monument had been removed, as the new government claimed that it was unlawfully built, and pointed to a string of illegal actions in the course of its placement, including the fact that the legal procedures for the placement of the historical monuments were not fulfilled, or that the monuments were erected at the places that were not previously planned for that type of construction.

The removal served as another symbol of heightened levels of polarization between political parties, as well as among the public, which ultimately reflected the urbanistic chaos that  the “Skopje 2014” project left behind.

Simultaneously, the removal of this monument showed that the continuation of this process may lead to further confrontation between experts, citizens, and the already mutually estranged political parties if serious contemplation is not put into every step.

The uncertain fate of the “Skopje 2014” project

In the end, the final decision on the fate of the monuments and sculptures in the center of Skopje will again be made by politicians. Zaev’s party had promised even before coming to power that consultations with experts would take place, and did the same once taking government.

Since taking power, their promises have expanded to include the legalization or removal of monuments and sculptures will be implemented in accordance with the law the Law on Monuments and Memorial sites and the Law on Acting Upon Illegally constructed buildings, respectively.

The demolition of the first monument was done based on the recommendation of an appointed Working Group, which is officially referred to as “Working group for preparation of Analysis for Implementation and Consequences from the so-called Skopje 2014 project.” This six-member team was formed in July 2017 by the minister of culture, Robert Alađozovski, as soon as the Zaev’s government came into power. The group is made up of university professors of urbanism and history of art, art critics, political scientists, and the president of the Association of Architects of Macedonia (AAM). Their task is to conduct an evaluation of the “Skopje 2014” project, as well as to offer solutions and measures for further action with regards to this legacy.

The Working Group had already prepared 12 studies, the basic conclusion reached, being that the placement of monuments and sculptures had been illegal from the very start.

The Working Group started working in parallel to the official halt of spending funds for this project, on the basis of the government decision from August 2017, thereby denying 13 million euro from the state budget. The purpose was to send a clear message that the new government would, with certainty, halt the implementation of this megalomaniac project and investigate all aspects of its construction.

In an email response to K2.0, the Ministry of Culture says that the Working Group had already prepared 12 studies, the basic conclusion reached, being that the placement of monuments and sculptures had been illegal from the very start.

“Without any exceptions, it was a serious violation of all applicable laws regulating the erection of monuments, the budget and procurement law, as well as the law on spatial and urbanistic planning and construction,” they wrote in the response to K2.0.

The Ministry also claim that damage had been inflicted due to the illegal erection of monuments, starting from the misuse of funds, misuse of official position,the illegal erection of sculptures through treating them as urbanistic equipment, to the most serious offense, which in this case is the derogation of competencies of the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia. Such allegations carry grave financial implications for both the state and municipal budgets.

Difficult decisions and fragile peace

According to the Ministry of Culture, all monuments are undergoing individual evaluation. Once the formal evaluations are complete, the Working Group has proposed to begin the removal of some of the monuments in accordance with their evaluations as part of the effort to return downtown Skopje to its original state. A timeline for this to happen has yet to be made clear.  

Already in October of 2018, the Public Prosecution for Organized Crime and Corruption opened an investigation around the construction of the “Oko” bridge and the dozens of sculptures arranged on its surface, under suspicion that a crime of misuse of public office and authority had been perpetrated. This bridge is located next to the famous, old Stone Bridge, hence limiting the sight of it from the river’s bank. The bridge was constructed in order to connect the buildings built as part of the “Skopje 2014” project on both sides of the Vardar river.

Simultaneously, in early 2016, the Special Public Prosecution opened a preliminary investigation related to the manner of construction of monuments and sculptures of “Skopje 2014,” in order to establish whether crimes were committed. Their office continues to state that they are still gathering documents and refuse to give any other answer to the media.

The Macedonian government  has not shown a current willingness to comment on what will happen with the “Skopje 2014” project and its legacy. K2.0 sent questions three times via email to the spokesperson Mile Bošnjakovski, but has not received a response.

The Ministry of Culture wrote to K2.0 that “the Working Group will continue its work,” whereas the final reports shall be submitted to the Minister, which will then forward them to the government. No timeframe for this has been provided.

Moreover, some of the messages arriving from the government are a bit controversial. In this sense, spokesperson Bošnjakovski said in the middle of June of 2018 that the monuments would not be removed, but that a caption with an explanation would be added to each of them. For example, “The Soldier on a Horse” would get a caption saying that Alexander the Great was a symbol of the ancient hellenic period and that he has become the symbol of friendship between Macedonia and Greece.

Perhaps contributing to the lack of specific information being made available about the effort, is the sensitive period Macedonia currently finds itself in, in relation to the Final Agreement for solving the Macedonian-Greek dispute around the state name. In June 2018, the Prespa Agreement was signed by Macedonian PM Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tspiras, which foresaw ending the 27-year name dispute by changing Macedonia’s official name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia.  On January 11, the Macedonian Parliament voted to move forward with the action of changing the country’s name and  now the vote goes to the Greek parliament, which is expected to come to a decision by the end of the month.

Furthermore, the fragile security that has continuously been threatened through numerous protests of the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, the protests of newly established parties and radical right wing organizations, could quickly be turned to turmoil if the government decides to start the removal of monuments and sculptures too soon.

But, if the long-standing name dispute is successfully resolved, Macedonia would have space to turn primary focus to the issue of “Skopje 2014” as early as the first half of 2019.

Still, legislation in place that serves to protect historical architecture must be considered. Article 8 of the Prespa Agreement states that Macedonia would have to find a solution to the issue of symbols that are part of the Greek historical and cultural legacy, including the monuments dedicated to Alexander the Great, Philip the Second, and other ancient heroes that are now depicted in downtown Skopje.

In paragraph 2 of the same article, the following is stated: “Within six months from the day of entering into power of this agreement, the second side will reassess the status of monuments, public facilities, and infrastructure in its territory, and if they are in any way referring to ancient hellenic history and civilizations, which constitutes a part of the historical and cultural legacy of the first side, the second side will take adequate corrective measures in order to address the issue effectively and ensure the respect of such legacy.”

Playing with institutions

Existing studies from the Working Group explicitly mention that procedures to erect monuments were conducted illegally from the very start. The largest offences were made in the decision-making process, during the course of which, the government of Nikola Gruevski had managed to exclude the state Parliament, even though the 2004 Law on Memorials provides the state body with clear authority to decide on the placement and look of the monuments and insignia.

Article 4 of this law states the following: “Memorials, in the sense of this law, are busts, sculptures, plates, faucets, fountains, and other artistic and architectural facilities and constructions.” According to this point, one may conclude that, among others, the monument dedicated to Alexander the Great, 24.5 meters high and erected on the central square of the capital, cannot be anything else but “a monumental memorial.” However, the Parliament didn’t discuss its placement.

Chaotic and unlawful placement of monuments and sculptures for “Skopje 2014” brought about the blockage and usurpation of public space in Skopje downtown. Photo: Bojan Blaževski.

The previous right wing government of VMRO-DPMNE used the Centar Skopje Municipality, which their party held control of, for building this and other monuments; by handing over the right to make decisions on the monuments to the municipality, they found a loophole in legislation and were able to proceed with erecting the monument. Namely, the municipality has the competency to make decisions on marking important events of local significance, hence they presented the placement of monuments and sculptures in this manner.

The decision concerning the monument dedicated to Alexander the Great was made on November 30, 2006. The decision mentions “a fountain with a memorial.” It is evident from analyzing the documents from back then that the monument to Alexander the Great was not incorporated into the program for marking important events and historical figures, but was done post festum, as late as February 5, 2009, more than two years after the decision was made for its placement.

If they followed the legal procedure, based on the Law on Memorials and Sights of Memory , in the first phase the Parliament should have adopted a five-year program in 2006 for marking important events and prominent figures, then voted for each monument placement, and in the next phase, the Parliament should have established the Commission for Erecting Memorials.

The constant neglect of law by the state bodies and local self-government was evident during the placement of all monuments and sculptures as part of the “Skopje 2014” project.

More commissions and questioning

Macedonian architects and urbanists are dissatisfied with the attitude authorities have taken towards public spaces in Skopje. Architect Bekir Ademi says that monuments and sculptures that are part of the “Skopje 2014” project were designed quickly, outside the sphere of urbanistic, architectonic, and ethical criteria. Describing this process to K2.0, Ademi says that the monuments are “scattered, fallen from the sky, disproportionate, ‘nicely’ decorated, erected without control, [and] not suited to the current time.”

The uncertain future of the “Skopje 2014” project hangs as the Damocles sword over the social democratic government of Zoran Zaev.

He is critical of the project and believes that the architects and urbanists from Macedonia, themselves, are partially responsible for everything that happened in Skopje’s city center, because they failed to react in a timely manner.

The uncertain future of the “Skopje 2014” project hangs as the Damocles sword over the social democratic government of Zoran Zaev. At this moment, they are cooperating with the Centar Municipality and city authorities of Skopje in the further revision of all aspects of the “Skopje 2014” project, which include a municipal commission composed of mostly urbanists who are tasked with evaluating all the urbanistic plans in the city center. The conclusions of the investigations made by both commissions will be transfused into measures to be dealt with by the government, but no clear deadlines are set.

The municipal commission also has the task of conducting a revision of 31 general urbanistic plans, including the one concerning the city center and that which was part of the “Skopje 2014” project.

While the Working Group, concerned only with the “Skopje 2014” project within the Ministry of Culture, concluded that monuments and sculptures from this project are illegal and should be removed, the municipal commission  has still not taken into consideration “Mal Ring,” the urbanistic plan for the strict city center, according to Divna Penčić, a professor of urbanism at the Faculty of Architecture of the University in Skopje, who spoke with K2.0.

Penčić, who is a member of the Commission for Urbanism and Evaluation Team of all urbanistic plans in the Centar Municipality, emphasized that the Working Group for the Preparation of Analysis for Realization and Consequences of the so-called Skopje 2014 project, as formed under the Ministry of Culture, conducted an evaluation of the project and prepared documents which have been submitted to Zoran Zaev.

“The deal was to start revising DUP ‘Mal Ring’, after publishing the stance of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, following the commission’s recommendations,” Penčić explains.

Currently, there is a moratorium on the city center, which was adopted by the Centar Municipality on December 27, 2017. The moratorium prohibits any new construction sites or erection of monuments, and should remain in force until the revision of the urbanistic plan, together with 30 other urbanistic plans.

Despite being the main investor for the “Skopje 2014” construction project, the Centar Municipality had another decisive role during the period of the VMRO-DPMNE rule.

As stated by urbanist Leonora Grčeva in her work “Skopje 2014: degrading DUP ‘Mal Ring’ in nine steps,” the municipality has changed the urbanistic plan nine times between 2007 and  2012, adding new sites for the erection of new monuments and sculptures.

As many of the revisions for the urbanistic plans note, the Municipality should conduct a revision of its urbanistic plan, and on the basis of this, suggest new measures, including the removal of monuments and sculptures from the “Skopje 2014” project.

Experts, foreign and domestic, and citizens as well, have been proposing options and alternatives to the “Skopje 2014” project since the initial days of its implementation. Now, there are a few specific options being considered. The first is to leave the monuments where they stand and legalize them. The second option is to adopt a special solution for every monument, out of which some depict characters from the hellenic culture and civilization, and are placed in the middle of pedestrian zones.

The last two options include the relocation of monuments and sculptures to specially designed thematic parks or museums, which would be conceived later on as content for marking antiquitization and changing the state identity from the past.

The most radical option is the complete removal of monuments and sculptures of “Skopje 2014,” the demolition of their pedestals and the melting of the shaped sculpture for which dozens of millions of euros were spent.

Moreover, several mayors throughout Macedonia have so far requested that the monuments which celebrate characters of great importance to their local community be transported to those respective municipalities. For example, the mayor of Ohrid demanded the relocation of the monument dedicated to Tsar Samuil, the medieval emperor who ruled in a large area of the Balkans from 976 until 1014 and created the state of South Slavs. Until this day, nationalists have disputed whether Samuil created the Macedonian, the West Bulgarian or the Bulgarian Tsardom.

Perhaps Macedonia can look for a solution in some other similar examples. Such as the example of the Bulgarian metropolis of Sofia, where there has been a Museum of Socialist Art for seven years. Instead of destroying the art of sculptors from the communist era, the authorities made a decision in 2011 to display them in a renovated facility of the Ministry of Culture, where today, the monument dedicated to Vladimir Ilič Lenjin, sits, as well as the one depicting the first communist leader of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov, and the founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzeržinski.

Finally, the most radical option is the complete removal of monuments and sculptures of “Skopje 2014,” the demolition of their pedestals and the melting of the shaped sculpture for which dozens of millions of euros were spent.

The main obstacle to the removal is not only the VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and its right wing supporters, but also the living artists who designed the monuments in Skopje city center. One of them is Kiril Mukaetov — designer of the incomplete 20-meter high sculptural composition of Mother Teresa with merciful sisters, a terrace and fountain on the “Macedonia” square. He had also manufactured a monument titled “Macedonian defenders” and a number of the sculptures placed on the Bridge of Art in Skopje.

In a short phone conversation with K2.0, Mukaetov said that he is neither an expert for urbanism, or documents. “I am an artist,” Mukaetov said, adding that he cannot fight decisions made by the Ministry of Culture, but emphasizing that every sculpture to him “feels like a child of his own,” and that it will be hurtful if they are removed.

Even though he initially accepted an invitation to speak more broadly to K2.0 on the issue, he didn’t want to say more than this.

Architect Bekir Ademi says that a substantial analysis and debate of prominent artists and experts from Macedonia and abroad should be conducted, who would assess all monuments and sculptures individually. Thereat, he believes that special laws should be adopted on the “Skopje 2014” project, on the basis of an in-depth and expert analysis.

“Art cannot be always treated by the law,” he emphasized as an important note. “Every hastened decision could be damaging as was the ‘Skopje 2014’ project.”K

Feature image by Bojan Blaževski