Alexander the Great is hard to avoid in Skopje, Macedonia’s diminutive capital. The city’s airport bears his name; the Macedonian national football team play in the Philip II arena, in honour of Alexander’s father; and then there’s the 22-metre-high statue of him in the city’s centre.
The pedestal is an elaborate water fountain that plays classical music and changes colour at night. The Las Vegas-style tribute to Alexander is part of “Skopje 2014”, a mammoth government initiative that has seen a raft of statues and buildings erected in Skopje.
There is a new national theatre, a history museum, a foreign ministry, a concert hall and two bridges. The bill for the entire project is expected to exceed €500 million.
Skopje 2014 is far from universally popular, with many citizens questioning the huge cost at a time of recession.
Last year, prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s nationalist government were forced to take a series of emergency loans and unemployment in Macedonia is around 30 per cent.
“The reasons behind Skopje 2014 are mostly political,” Gjoko Muratovski, who worked for the Macedonian prime minister’s Office from 2007 to 2008 wrote in the online magazine the Conversation recently.
“Macedonia has two major external problems. On one hand, it is an aspiring EU candidate member country that never seems to come on the EU agenda for enlargement. On the other, the country still struggles to defend its right to a sovereign national identity.”
Some of Macedonia’s difficulties stem from its tense relationship with its southern neighbour, Greece. For 20 years, Greece has maintained that the name Macedonia, which is also that of a Greek province, is tantamount to a claim on Greek territory.
There are internal politics at play, too. Skopje 2014, with its references to Macedonian language, the Orthodox Church and the legacy of Alexander the Great, has been interpreted as an attempt to celebrate Macedonian national identity. Given Macedonia’s 20th century history as one of the more backward Yugoslav socialist republics it’s an understandable goal. However, such a vision of “Macedonian-ness” has little place for the half a million Albanian citizens who live there.
The situation for Albanians in Macedonia has improved significantly since the signing of the Ohrid Agreement in 2001. The Macedonian nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party is in coalition with the successors of the National Liberation Army (the Albanian guerrilla group that fought state forces at the turn of the millennium) – but many fear that grand nationalist projects such as Skopje 2014 will deepen the divide between Albanians and ethnic Macedonians.