Now and Then: Imaginary Pasts in an Imaginary City

North Macedonia was a lucky country, by Balkan standards. In the violent disintegration of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was the only republic spared the inhuman horrors visited upon its neighbours. There was no mass ethnic cleansing. No shelling from the mountainside tore apart ancient confraternity and cosmopolitanism in its cities. Yet North Macedonia has a problem that cannot be solved by NATO bombing campaigns, arms decommissioning or UN peacekeeping forces. It has to constantly prove that it really does, and should, exist; a problem the country attempted to solve, in part, with architecture. As the Macedonian language is closely related to Bulgarian, Bulgaria is sceptical of the very existence of a Macedonian nation. While this point of contention hasn’t prevented normal relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, however, the same cannot be said for neighbouring Greece. To Greek nationalists, the existence of the country we call ‘Macedonia’ is a fiction — a cynical ploy foisted by Communist authorities on innocent Bulgarian and Serbian peasants — supposedly to provide a pretext to annex the Greek territory of Macedonia. As a result, Greece has been far more hostile to North Macedonia than Bulgaria, vetoing the country’s membership of the EU and NATO until 2018.

The Greeks are right that Macedonian identity is a recent invention, with Macedonian identity only beginning to assert its distinctiveness from other Slavic nations in the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately for them, however, the invention of a Macedonian nation — whether devised intentionally by communists or not — has been entirely successful, and the Macedonian people are by now fully committed to their nationhood. Nevertheless, the recency of the nation’s birth means that, unlike many other European states, North Macedonia does not have a deep well of historical memory to draw on in order to explain its own existence. The physicality of the nation’s capital, Skopje, reflected this fact a little too well for comfort. A devastating earthquake in 1963 had annihilated much of the city’s historic architecture, so the city was dominated by blocky, modernist architecture, giving it a distinct sheen of newness. One could scarcely imagine a more fitting metaphor for Greek anxieties about communist interlopers.

Enter North Macedonia’s nationalist then-governing party, the VMRO-DPMNE. In 2010, the government outlined plans for a regeneration of the city that would fundamentally change its character. The city’s modernist facades were to be torn down, replaced with baroque and neoclassical designs that would mirror a new crop of statues and monuments that were to spring up in the city’s public spaces. Ostensibly, the redesign was motivated by hard economics: a more ‘beautiful’ city centre would attract tourism to one of Europe’s poorest countries, and the scale of the works would stimulate the construction industry. The stylistic uniformity of the project betrayed its true purpose, however. The aim was for the capital to embody an image of timeless, eternal Macedonian statehood.

The region of Macedonia has a deep history; but the people who now call themselves Macedonians were hardly involved in most of it. This historical reality forced the planners and artists to be creative in what qualified for inclusion in the Macedonian national myth they were constructing. We can see this from who was deemed worthy of a statue. Up went a statue of Emperor Justinian — a Byzantine emperor born in Macedonia. Along with him came Saints Cyril and Methodius — two foreign preachers who converted the region’s Slavic population to Christianity. Most famously of all, the city’s central square is dominated by a warrior on horseback who all reasonable observers conclude represents Alexander the Great. The logic for inclusion, and therefore the nation being imagined, was based on place of birth, not ethnicity. This could have been a surprisingly progressive stance for a Balkan country.

However, just as historical narratives informed the physical shape of the city being reconstructed, the practical implementation of the plan shaped the interpretation of the project’s narrative. Despite being just a few hundred meters away from the city centre, the district of Čair, the heartland of the city’s ethnic Albanian minority, was largely excluded from the project. This decision could be rationalized on the grounds that Čair, as the home of the city’s surviving Ottoman-era old town, already had the ‘historical’ quality that Skopje 2014 was aiming for. However, the effect of Čair’s exclusion recontextualises the project: many Albanian organisations condemned Skopje 2014 as promoting the values and identity of the Macedonian majority. In response, the Čair municipality announced their own redevelopment plan for the district— which in turn promoted and celebrated an exclusively Albanian identity and history. Consequently, observers have criticised Skopje 2014 as reinforcing the modern ethnic segregation of the capital. Here, past and present meet in an inextricable knot: narratives of history reshape the construction of the city, while the practicality of this reshaping itself defines the nature of the narrative.

The story of Skopje is an instructive one. Skopje 2014 isn’t an aberration — Macedonia, as a young nation, is merely playing catch-up. The government would hardly have gone to all the trouble of reconstructing the capital if they weren’t responding to the normative expectations of their peers — what a ‘real’ capital city looks like, what a ‘real’ country’s history should be. Yet no story about the past that we tell is spotless: all are contaminated by the present we have no choice but to inhabit. Skopje 2014 just made these things all so startlingly physical.

[Aran Prince-Tappe – he/him]

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