Europeanization in the Name of Authoritarianism: the Redesigning of Skopje

by Branimir Staletovic

13.01.2020

When the mayor of Skopje announced a highly comprehensive urban project called “Skopje 2014,” hardly anyone in North Macedonia believed that the undertaking would be implemented. However, over 25 new neoclassical and baroque objects and 150 sculptures and monuments have been constructed in less than five years. The overall cost reached 600 million euros of public tax money, largely surpassing the initially announced 80 million. In spite of the cost and the occasional protests, the VMRO-DPMNE government led by Nikola Gruevski has largely realized the urban renovation, declaring, “Skopje will become a real metropolis, like all other metropolises in Europe.” Thanks to leaked phone recordings, one can now hear how the architectural objects in Rome, Paris, and Vienna inspired Gruevski, and how he reasoned that Skopje deserved such a tradition too. While the authorities relied on the concept of Europe to implement and legitimize this undertaking, they simultaneously used the notion of “European Skopje” to intensify the authoritarian course.

A set of new buildings along the river Vardar in the central area; Photo: Branimir Staletovic.

Modern and national

The narrative of Europeanization is not new in the Balkans. Architecture has been of many forms through which the concept of Europe has manifested in the region, but through its physical expression it bears a particular historical and social weight. Modernization and Europeanization have been conflated, often being used as tools to promote a “modern/national” culture and to justify breaking with Ottoman architecture and cultural heritage. Historically this has been seen—by both liberals and conservatives—as an antipode to modern, European and civilizational processes.

Exclusive nationalism, Europeanism, and civilizationism are not mutually exclusive categories, as sociologist Rogers Brubaker (2017) has concluded, and by no means is their ideological interaction restricted to the Balkans. This ideological blend has historical roots in Western Europe (Bieber 2019) but only recently left the fringes of the European political landscape by combining nationalist and civilizational language. The civilizational narrative has been adopted by the European far right in the course of the last decade in order to generate a state of fear and threat of Muslim culture, from which its advocates hoped to politically benefit—and some of them surely did (e.g. AFD, FPÖ, Fidesz).

Arch of Triumph named “Porta Makedonija; Photo: Branimir Staletovic.

The discourse of Europeanization of Skopje is thus not in itself an ideological novelty, even though the context in which it appeared—involving a combination of democratic and nationalist-authoritarian elements—distinguishes “Skopje 2014” from its predecessors and similar projects in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Europeanization as a facade

As the newest revamp of the city was being praised as an act of Europeanization, the conservative government used its position of power to abandon the architectural tradition and undermine democratic practices. “Skopje 2014” is to a great degree a high-handed project, embodying the political and ideological legacy of Nikola Gruevski. Practically, the revamp was announced from nowhere and realized without broader public or expert consensuses, even though it was financed with public money. It is not an exaggeration to say that Gruevski played a key role not only in implementing the project, but in redesigning the city as well: “I stand behind Skopje 2014, for now it is the time and opportunity to finally do what we should have done many years ago,” claimed Gruevski.

Warrior on Horse (Alexander the Great); Photo: Branimir Staletovic.

From an ideological standpoint, the project centers strongly on anti-communism and ethno-Macedonism, chiefly inspired by the glory days of Alexander the Great and his legacy. Using the ancient Macedon Kingdom as an ideological resource has provided the project with “civilizational” undertones—“welcome to Macedonia, the cradle of civilization,” is the text message one received after crossing the borders. Within this civilizational paradigm, Skopje’s Ottoman district and architecture were not given any praise, as they are perceived as a cultural property of Albanians and Muslims—  comprising ca. 25% of Skopje’s population—which are social categories that are not included in the notion of dominant Christian Kulturnation, and as such ranked lower in the cultural and architectural hierarchy. Instead, a new tradition has been invented and advertised as a part of the broader European civilization. Moreover, old modern objects, colloquially known as communist buildings, are now refurbished in an eclectic-neoclassical style, announcing thus a “final” break with the communist tradition in the city.

Power and more power

The project had its own practical goal. The illiberal character of “Skopje 2014” enabled the government to exercise an informal control over business and the intellectual elite as well as over the right-leaning NGO sector that took part in organizing, donated to, and publically supported the project. Moreover, the renovation of Skopje put Gruevski in a position of earning for himself a symbolic image of creator in a country and city that rarely witnesses such master projects and narratives. After many failed attempts to redesign Skopje’s central area since independence in 1991, it is now Gruevski who can rightly claim the authorship of new Skopje.

That being said, the Europeanization narrative was used as a tool for legitimizing not only the urban undertaking, but the government too. Simultaneously while “Europeanizing” the city, the former authorities were undermining the road towards EU membership by abolishing democratic institutions, engaging in high-level corruption, and extensively surveilling citizens, political partisans, opponents, and journalists. One should not be puzzled by this “contradiction,” since historically speaking, Europeanism has not been exclusively related to EU membership. In context of Skopje and North Macedonia, the language of Europeanization sought to condone the massive urban operation for a primarily domestic and rather practical cause—sustaining a semi-authoritarian regime that was on the way to get its fifth consecutive mandate.

Gruevski’s government lost power after a major political crisis in 2016; since then we have heard ideas about a novel adaptation of the project in Skopje’s urban tissue as well as calls for destruction and relocation of some of the monuments. Come what may, the project’s exclusively mono-ethnic character carries on with the politics of polarization of the city, reinforcing thus the segregation between Albanian and Macedonian “communities.” Its legacy will stand as a reminder of a period marked by tensions and growing authoritarianism that luckily did not end up in a violent conflict.

References

Bieber, Florian: “How Europe’s Nationalists Became Internationalists”; in: Foreign Policy (30.11.2019); URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/30/how-europes-nationalists-became-internationalists/ (last access: 03.02.2020).

Brubaker, Rogers: “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective”; in: Ethnic and Racial Studies 40/8 (2017), pp. 1191-1226.

The Author

Branimir Staletovic works as an University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. He completed study in Political Science as well as MA studies focusing on Southeastern European politics, history and law. Currently he is working on his dissertation, which looks at the Urban Design Politics in Skopje.

Citation

Staletovik, Branimir: “Europeanization in the Name of Authoritarianism: the Redesigning of Skopje”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (13.01.2020); URL: https://global-sees.org/2020/01/13/europeanization-in-the-name-of-authoritarianism-the-redesigning-of-skopje/.

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