A statue of Alexander is lowered into the central square in Skopje, 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovsky/Reuters.
In the past three years the capital of the republic of Macedonia has undergone a major building programme that has enlivened the drab concrete of its 1960s, post-earthquake centre. The Skopje 2014 project includes a series of reconstructed neoclassical civic buildings, new bridges and, at either end of the medieval Stone Bridge, statues of sandalled Greek warriors commonly thought to be Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
The simplified, doll-like features and gigantism of these figures imply an unfamiliarity with the very western culture that, paradoxically, they celebrate. Said to cost up to €500m ($670m), Skopje 2014 is closely identified with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, who were re-elected in 2011. The party is pro-Europe and pro-Nato and describes itself as Christian democratic. As that implies, it is usually seen as sidelining the country’s Muslim citizens, even though the Democratic Party of Turks is a member of its coalition government. The new Skopje looks backwards, in a manner known locally as antiquisation, to a resolutely western classical antiquity that the government of today claims as the country’s own. This claim is exacerbating already difficult relations with Greece, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, Macedonia’s Albanian community.
As so often in the Balkans, the difficulties are with narrative. The country is termed Fyrom – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – within the UN at the insistence of Greece, which, under the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, gained a region of about 13,000 square miles that is also known as Macedonia. The treaty also granted territory to the modern republic’s other neighbours, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Greece claims that for today’s state to call itself Macedonia implies territorial ambition. Bulgaria, though unfazed by the name, claims that the present government is spreading anti- Bulgarian propaganda.
Balkan narratives are notoriously dangerous. Roughly two-thirds of the republic’s population of just over two million is Orthodox Christian and the remaining third Muslim. Approximately two-thirds is ethnic Macedonian and a quarter is ethnic Albanian; it also has substantial Turkish and Serbian communities, and at least 54,000 Roma inhabitants. In other words, Macedonia, which managed to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without drastic ethnic cleansing, straddles the region’s fault line between Islam and Christianity, making it a significant early-warning system.
In 2012, the EU enlargement commissioner recommended for the fourth time that the republic, an official candidate since December 2005, should start accession negotiations. For the fourth time, the EU turned down this recommendation, rather giving the Macedonian government some months’ grace to resolve its issues with Greece and Bulgaria.
As its neighbours join the EU and Macedonia is left behind, its economic position and stability can only deteriorate. In 2012 the IMF ranked the republic 133rd out of 185 countries by GDP, at $9.7bn.
In the light of all this, Skopje 2014 seems not so much folie de grandeur as common insanity. This summer there have been mass demonstrations against a government viewed by all sections of the population as out of touch and out of control. The possibility of real change in what is still a young democracy has receded for now. But this peculiarly vulnerable – and very beautiful – country remains the Balkan canary. We should pay attention when it sings.