A new type of “post-nationalist nationalism” has emerged in the Balkans, which is preoccupied with external presentation for foreign investors rather than internal cohesion. So who gets erased when the state decides to market itself, and what are the consequences of that erasure? Joris Zantvoort looks at Macedonia, the site of recent arson attacks and riots.
In early elections on Sunday, April, 27, the leading VMRO-DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was confirmed as the largest party in the Macedonian parliament, and by the widest margin since it assumed power in 2006. Moreover, President Gjorge Ivanov, from the self-same party, won re-election in the second round of the presidential elections that same day. The international election monitoring organization OSCE/ODIHR reported widespread irregularities and an unfair pre-election environment, including media bias in favor of the incumbents; they also recommended that the opposition parties accept the results in order “to create a positive post-election environment.”
Although the way in which this situation has been achieved is questionable, most Macedonians in fact do support VMRO-DPMNE. Indirectly, then, the election results are also an endorsement of the governing party’s controversial “Skopje 2014” project, an extensive set of plans to irrevocably change the urban landscape of the Macedonian capital by the end of this year. The city will be “enriched” by a new philharmonic hall, a new national theater, three new government buildings, a new business center, a new church, three new museums, two new hotels, a triumphal arch, two new bridges, and more than 20 new bronze and marble statues of national historical ﬁgures. One of the “highlights” of the project has already been completed: a 33m (sic!) tall bronze statue of Alexander the Great in the middle of the city center, towering above all the buildings lining the main square.
The project was first announced in 2010, and in April, the government claimed that they had spent 208 million euros on the project to date. Critics claim the costs are much higher and likely exceed 500 million euros. Whatever the precise cost, for one of the poorest countries in Europe it is a significant, some would say extravagant, expenditure, especially since the project was initiated in the middle of a global economic crisis.
However, the financial side of the project pales in importance to its ideological, political and social implications. As the physical surroundings of Skopjeans and Macedonians are radically reconfigured, their access to alternative narratives about their nation’s history is fundamentally challenged. Perhaps in a more serious and certainly in a more permanent way than through the already abusive stance the government displays vis-à-vis national and international media, Skopje 2014 has literally changed the social and political landscape in Macedonia.
Consciously or unconsciously, the authorities in Macedonia used Skopje 2014 as a tool to obfuscate the pressing issue of the future of Macedonian society. In its place, they erected a false image of a unified Macedonian nation in the shape of a Disneyfied capital city.
What is interesting and disturbing at the same time is that it appears the primary aim of Skopje 2014 is not the unification of the Macedonian people, but the attraction of foreign investment and tourists. Meanwhile, one of the main issues that has confronted Macedonian governments since independence is befogged. The exclusion of non-Macedonian groups from the public sphere and equal status continues, and the consequences of such misgiven practices are felt in clashes between members of different ethnic groups on a regular basis.
Most recently, riots broke out in the Skopje suburb of Gjorce Petrov following the murder of a 19-year-old ethnic Macedonian man. The name of the killer seemed to suggest that he was of Albanian origin, leading rioters to destroy shops that they believed belonged to local Albanians.
In a divided society, a physical manifestation of the superiority and historical primacy of the ethnic Macedonians, which is exactly what Skopje 2014 is, is not what is needed. What is needed is an open and honest public debate, one that includes Albanians, Bosniaks, Roma, and other minorities that are currently ignored and excluded, if not physically beaten or their shops set on fire.
The development of such a debate is impossible if the government continues its policy of “antiquization”, of which Skopje 2014 is merely the latest and most brutal example. Anastas Vangeli describes antiquization as: “the identitarian policies based on the assumption that there is a direct link between today’s Macedonians and Ancient Macedonians.” In other words, it is the idea that contemporary Macedonians are not descendants of Slavs that migrated to Southeastern Europe during the Great Migration in the sixth and seventh century CE, but directly related to Alexander the Great, King of Macedon.
Vangeli’s paper is a deconstruction of this myth and offers many examples of ways in which pseudoscientific research is used to support the myth. A particularly absurd one is the claim by two Macedonian linguists that the third language on the Rosetta Stone – the first two being Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek – is not Demotic Egyptian but Demotic Macedonian and that, in addition, this Demotic Macedonian language shows a surprising number of similarities with modern Macedonian. So, Macedonians are Alexandrians. Q.E.D.
In order to discover more “proof” of this connection, the VMRO-DPMNE government finances plentiful archaeological excavations in Macedonia. The head of the Bureau for the Protection of Cultural Heritage for the duration of the Skopje 2014 project was Pasko Kuzman, a controversial anthropologist of dubious scientific stature. According to Vangeli, “he claims that he can travel through time and has visions about future discoveries in his dreams, and that he often dreams about ‘visiting his friends from the bronze age’.” Considering there are such extraordinary characters among the people deciding on truth and policy related to the “Macedonian national question”, the extravagant nature of Skopje 2014 is really not such a surprise.
The project can thus be seen as the latest and most elaborate effort in convincing the Macedonian people and the rest of the world of the ancient and noble heritage of the Macedonians. For the time being, the project is the final link in a nation-building chain, and aims to radically alter the built environment in the capital not as an end in itself, but rather to impose the rhetoric of antiquization on people by integrating it into the very structures that surround them on a daily basis. Skopje 2014 reconstitutes the city’s space in two different ways: firstly, by marginalizing the Ottoman and socialist past, and secondly by simultaneously erecting symbols of the alleged ancient heritage – in fanciful neoclassical and neo-baroque style – and reinstating replicas of buildings constructed under the interwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
This delegitimization of large swathes of historical space and the identities that Skopjeans and other Macedonians hold in connection to them raises an uncomfortable question. Starting from the existing pool of identities and people’s relation to society, who is included and who is excluded by the national narrative that Skopje 2014 provides?
The ostensible purpose of the project is to create a situation in which both citizens and tourists encounter the nation, in its architectural and monumental manifestation, at every turn as they explore the center of Skopje. Clearly, the project, which unsurprisingly includes no references to Albanian, Muslim or Roma history, epitomizes the monolithic interpretation of Macedonia’s cultural heritage that is the central tenet of antiquization. Indeed, a former advisor to Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Sam Vaknin, openly said that “antiquization has a double goal, which is to marginalise the Albanians and create an identity that will not allow Albanians to become Macedonians.”
In addition, the project draws heavily on Orthodox Christian symbolism. This adds an extra layer to the symbolic violence perpetrated by Skopje 2014: in addition to ethnic and historical identity, religious identity is also assumed into the Macedonian monolith. Ironically enough, however, this brings to light an inconsistency in the project’s ideology. An alternative reading of history might make it possible to claim that Macedonians are descendants of Alexander the Great and thus not ethnically Slavic, but it will be a challenge indeed to uphold that Alexander was also a Christian, let alone an Orthodox one.
It is crucial to realize that Skopje 2014 excludes, per definition, all those who do not agree with the interpretation of Macedonia’s history and the essence it represents. It thus excludes not only ethnic Albanians, Muslims, and Roma, but also large parts of the ethnic Macedonian population as well.
Initially, it seems, the exclusionary nature of the antiquization policy and Skopje 2014 was the main target of protest by the Macedonian people. However, it appears that the content of the protests soon shifted to the question of the image of Macedonia that the project created for the outside world. This new focus of the debate can have serious consequences for the future of Macedonia, as its people are concerned more with what outsiders think of them than with the country’s internal social and political issues.
Selling the nation
The stated aim of the VMRO-DPMNE government, which finds resonance with the project’s supporters as well as many of its critics, is to “Europeanize” Skopje and Macedonia in order to attract investment and tourists from the West. The position that those supporting and denouncing Skopje 2014 share is that in order to create a more favorable economic situation, Macedonia must be given a positive image, which can be achieved through the process of nation branding.
Anthropologist Andrew Graan defines the basic idea of nation branding as follows: “nation-branding practices represent a new modality of neoliberal governance in which the state is imagined as an entrepreneurial subject.” However, the state-as-corporation also needs citizens to participate in the presentation and promotion of the nation-brand. They have to embody the nation and carry out the right image to visitors, who are defined mainly as buyers.
Imagine a situation in which tourists would encounter lots of Macedonians that expressed their dislike of the national image; this would not contribute to the creation of an authentic touristic experience. It is important for the success of the brand that the population of the country buys into the necessity, or at least the benefits, of promoting and participating in a particular image of the nation.
The current situation is that the nation brand that the government is promoting and developing in space is contested by large segments of Macedonian society. The critique focuses on the notion of authenticity: opponents believe that Skopje’s facelift will create a farcical and ridiculous aesthetic and spatial narrative that will only make tourists laugh at Macedonia and thus repel investors as well.
In my opinion, however, there is a serious problem with this debate. As noted, the debate is mainly between ethnic Macedonians who either do or do not support the image of the nation that is being generated through Skopje 2014 and other practices, such as the renaming of Skopje’s airport to Alexander the Great Airport in 2007. However, there are several things that this debate obfuscates.
Firstly, the fact that antiquization disqualifies all “non-ethnic Macedonians” from the debate over Macedonia’s past, and therefore its current meaning and image, is forgotten. Secondly, the violent nature of Skopje 2014, which imposes unto physical place and geographical space an entirely new reality with the aim of physically marginalizing and finally erasing the other heritages of the city, their related versions of the past, and the identity that flows through them, is also pushed backstage.
Consequently, it appears to me that the neoliberal economic logic behind the idea of the nation as brand has already been accepted, while the real issues underlying Macedonia’s identity crisis remain undiscussed. It seems that most people no longer ask themselves the question, “Do I want myself and other members of my society to be governed this way?” The current debate about national image, phrased in the vocabulary and mode of marketing strategies, reduces the issue to a question of economics. It collapses the whole range of issues that are at stake here into a discussion of image and credibility vis-à-vis international capital. The debate no longer focuses on the internal issue of whether antiquization, more generally, and Skopje 2014, more specifically, will exclude and marginalize large portions of the population, but rather on the question if the refurbishing of the city center will lead to more money flowing into the country from the West.
Skopje 2014 has, in a sense, pushed Macedonia into a new type of post-nationalist nationalism, in which the focus is on the outside rather than internal affairs. It demands of citizens of Macedonia that they know how to market themselves, rather than that they know how to live well with one another, regardless of their background or the sound of their name. What it means to be a citizen in contemporary Skopje, then, is mostly defined by one’s relation to a negative, reductive marketization of the nation, rather than a positive and constructive imagining of the self and society.
To end on a more positive, or rather bittersweet, note: it is not at all unthinkable that the new Skopje will indeed be regarded by most outsiders as risible kitsch, rather than epic architecture. The realization of debacle could reawaken people to the real issue at stake and kick-start the re-evaluation of the basic principle of ethno-religious exclusion underlying the now accepted marketization of nation and identity. Perhaps it will unlock Skopje’s potential as Jean-Paul Sartre saw it after the devastating earthquake of 1963: “Skopje is not a film, not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.”
Photos in slider by FOSIM/flickr CC