Building an older, more beautiful Skopje… or the city of broken urban dreams

When the project Skopje 2014 became public earlier this year, it lead to protests over high costs, bad taste and the absence of public consultation. The plan foresees a large number of new buildings and statues in the center of Skopje.  Just having returned from Skopje, the ‘plan’ has already transformed the center of Skopje. Originally, it like the plan was too ambitious and outlandish to actually be realized. However, with big gaping holes on the main square, buildings sprouting up on the other side of the Vardar river, and statues already proliferating like Macedonia wants to catch up on two centuries of national monuments in two years, this plan turning into reality.

Goce Delchev

Admittedly, the plan ‘Skopje 2014’ was actually a clever branding trick of the current VMRO government to bring together a number of projects agreed by the previous city administration and interspersing them with a generous dosage of statues.  So what’s wrong with Skopje 2014. There is no doubt that the center of Skopje was in dire need of a make over. It is at least the third master plan for the center of Skopje, the first two foresaw a modernist Skopje in the decades after the 1963 earthquake. However, only parts were realized, leading to unconnected modernist buildings scattered throughout the center, including the magnificent national opera. This third effort to give the city a coherent aesthetic  is a post-modern hodgepodge of styles, including some pseudo-antique palaces and kitsch in no short supply. It is essentially anti-modern in its outlook. Ironically, by scattering the center with an odd mixture of styles, the project seems to affirm the emptiness of national identity rather than re-affirming the nation building project of the government.

Greek columns in Skopje

Besides being a costly enterprise in a country with limited resources, the project is also divisive and, as an Albanian friend told me, ‘provocative.’ The many monuments (three are already in place–one was put up as I visited Skopje) only celebrate the history of Macedonians (not to mention the ridiculous such as seeing Goce Delchev on a horse when he probably never rode a horse all his life). It is clearly an effort to engage in nation building for the majority, not to build bridges with the minority. The planned construction of a church on part of the main square symbolically asserts ownership of a civic site by one religious community. Ideas of also building a mosque is no remedy: it just suggests that identity is about choosing between one or the other, not a civic public space which atheists, Christians, Muslims and others can use jointly. Of course not only will minorities and civic minded Macedonians be alienated from the center. The planned statue of Alexander the Great is certainly not going to help in moving towards a solution in the name dispute (as have other provocative steps over recent years, such as the renaming of the highway and airport).

Considering the speed of the construction, it suggest that the government is able to move quickly when it really wants, one can only hope that might translate to more constructive aspects of governing.

Meanwhile the urban landscape of Skopje is changing quickly.  As a friend in Skopje told me, at least it might lead to some new tourist crowds–just like the those going to Bucharest to admire the Centrul Civic.

Ceaucesu with Masterpiece

The economic crisis, Greece and the Balkans

The economic crisis has hit the Western Balkans particularly hard. The region was hit hard in absolute terms, a result of half-hearted economic reforms and the elites denial over the economic crisis reaching the region (a number of government ministers across the region predicted that their country would be spared).
The region was also hit hard psychologically as growth has been sluggish or started from such a low level that the perceived benefits by most citizens are limited. As a result the reservoir of patience is small.

Cover from the German Weekly Focus "The Cheater in the Euro Family"

Who will benefit from the crisis? There are no clear winners or loosers. However, overall populism is likely to gain ground. Good evidence of this is the media exchange between Germany and Greece with German media going for some good old Balkan stereotypes and Greek media dragging out WW2 to counter German criticism of the Greek economy. While for the German media, Greeks are cheating, stealing Balkanites (which of course bodes well for the enlargement of the region), while Greek media like to draw parallels between the EU and NAZI occupation, as in the cartoon from Kathimerini below.

EU inspectors arriving/“Just a sec!” the minister yells and tears his shirt off/Then you see him demonstratively flagellating his bare torso with a rod. Three men are standing next to him in Gestapo uniforms barking “Sehr gut!”.

From Kathimerini: EU Inspectors Arriving (and sounding/looking like the Gestapo)

In Bosnia, it seems to disadvantage the established nationalists, esp. in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, but might help new nationalist/populists, such as the tycoon Radoncic, who recently suggested that non-Bosniaks should not be working for the Federations public broadcaster. In Serbia it is likely to help the populist Progressive Party. While no elections are scheduled in the region this year except for Bosnia, governments are likely to adopt populist policies. At least at the moment, it does not appear that opportunity to clean up the act in terms of inefficient public administration is being seized upon. Unlike in Greece, the unions are mostly weak and fragmented in the region, so paralysis is unlikely to come from the streets.

Altogether the economic crisis motivates political elites to claim political successes on other fronts: Unfortunately, this is unlikely to benefit the resolution of outstanding conflicts, from the name dispute between Greece and Macedonia to the relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

In particular, the prospects of resolving the name issue between Greece and Macedonia seems as remote as ever. While the Papandreou government has been more pragmatic than its predecessor, it seems improbable that it has the courage to move a solution forward in the context of the deep economic crisis and faced with the fact that the leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy, is Antonis Samaras whose hard line over Macedonia called the downfall of the Mitsotakis government in 1993.

The possibly most important aspect of the crisis is the policy of the EU. We have seen a serious erosion of solidarity among current EU members and the economic crisis in Greece is likely to disadvantage the countries of the region: Whether they are members (such as Bulgaria) and are now less likely to be admitted to the Euro-zone to countries in the Western Balkans, who are now likely to be scrutinized more extensively than they would have been before.

Why Minority Rights does not have to mean segregation…


All eyes on the PM

I recently returned from Macedonia.  The reason for my trip was in fact a very encouraging initiative:  The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities together with the Macedonian authorities has developed a strategy for integrating the educational system. What sounds like one of many projects which have been implemented (or not) across the region is in fact more ambitious and might have an impact well beyond Macedonia. For a while, minority rights have come to be associated with separate institutions and a creeping segregation of minority and majority children in the educational system. This initiative and the position of the HCNM have made it clear that this does not have to be case—in fact, safeguarding the rights of minorities also means facilitating communication with the majority (and vice versa) and ensuring that children from the community can function successfully in society at large.

Thus, the support of the Macedonian government, including the PM and the Albanian coalition partner DUI, might make this initiative happen. So what would happen: Classes and schools would no longer be broken up along ethnic lines, language training in the languages of the other will be strengthened, as will be extra-curricula activities and joint classes. If this experiment will succeed, it can become an example for a more subtle understanding of minority rights in education than dynamics of ethnically separate education in a number of countries in the region.

Do we need to worry about the Balkans? Doom, gloom and soccer

In recent weeks a number of seasoned observers have noted the increasing deterioration of the political development in the Balkans. From the Aleksandar the Great statue building government in Macedonia and the presidential elections there to the perpetual crisis in Bosnia, things don’t look up. In his recent article in the Economist, Tim Judah even mentions the risk of violence in Bosnia.

The combination of the economic crisis hitting the region, stagnating political dynamics and an EU reluctant to help out and visibly cooling down towards any rapid enlargement in the region does not bode well. The slow nomination of the new High Rep in Bosnia was a sad spectacle and enhance the already existing vacuum (I know that vacuums cannot be increased, so forgive the metaphor).

Now there are a number of encouraging developments as well: First, Bosnia won two soccer games. All joking aside and considering that the opponent was Belgium, this is a positive development. I have long argued that nothing is as likely to make Bosnia work as success. A good soccer team can go a long way in creating some state-wide cohesion–it is always popular to support winners. On a more immediate note, one chamber of parliament (HoR) has already passed constitutional amendments incorporating the district of Brcko into the constitution. This is significant for two reasons: First, it is the first constitutional revision since the constitution was imposed at Dayton. This demonstrates that the constitution can be reformed and amended. Second, the agreement of Brcko suggests that the RS does not want to secede. The entity cannot leave Bosnia without taking control of Brcko as well, as it divides the entity in two. Thus, leaving the district in legal limbo would help the RS in making claims at some point in the future were it to declare independence. Accepting and constitutionally protecting Brcko can be seen as a sign that despite all the radical talk, there is little appetite for any radical steps. Finally, constitutional talks in Bosnia are continuing and so for they have been difficult, but the experience of Brcko is encouraging.

This development, however, should be no reason for the EU to lean back. While it is understandable for the Union to deal with its internal economic problems, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty and troublesome members first, but let’s not forget that the celebrations over the Maastricht treaty were ruined by the Yugoslav wars some 18 years ago. It is time to focus on the region once more,  but without talking of the threat of violence or war, as talking of it might help the unfolding of a self-fulfilling dynamic.

Singing Santa eat your heart out! Here comes singing Aleksandar the Great

As Nova Makedonija reports, the mayor of Central Skopje plans to combine the best of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Macedonia by placing a status of Alexander the Great on the central square in Skopje, combined with a fountain and songs played by Toshe Proeski. Besides the obvious advantages of tapping into both the offending Greece and into the national hero on horseback line of work, the combination with water features and singing will be hard to beat. So, who could compete?

Rocky in Zitiste singing ‘Eye of the Tiger’

Samantha Fox in Cacak singing ‘Touch me’ (although only if the good citizens of Cacak decide against the odds to erect the statue)

Mother Teresa just down the road in Skopje singing Hallelujah

The possibilities are endless…

The Fall of a Government

The fall of a government…

The recent government crisis in Macedonia runs the risk of breaking with the tradition of Albanian party inclusion in goverment since 1990. The technical government in office since the government crisis triggered by the DPA leaving the governing coalition does not include Albanians, as the party refused to rejoin the government, even if only temporary. This reflects a general crisis in the Macedonian-Albanian political relations. Gruevski’s pledge to ignore ethnic politics when coming to office with the VMRO in 2006 has less meant tackling the other challenges Macedonia is facing, but rather ignoring the concerns of the Albanian community and engaging in constant campaigning, which has given him an edge over his main opponent, the SDSM, but alienated him from his coalition partner. New elections run the risk that his party might gain a strong position to form government, but will not facilitate compromise seeking with Albanian political parties. The failure of DPA to deliver during its time in government means that DUI will remain and probably strengthen its role as the strongest party among the Albanian community, resulting in a more difficult coalition forming process than after the last elections in 2006.

Thus, there are serious government and political crises in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and now Macedonia.

Names for Macedonia

According to Kathimerini, Matthew Nimetz has come up with five(!) new suggestions for the name of Macedonia:

Democratic Republic of Macedonia (like Democratic Republic of Congo or German Democratic Republic, generally reserved for, ehm, less democratic state)

Constitutional Republic of Macedonia (as opposed to the unconstitutional of Macedonia?)

Independent Republic of Macedonia (here’s a compromise for Kosovo, it just calls itself ‘independent’ with quotation marks and Serbia pretends to accept it, or maybe the official name of Kosovo could become “Lazna Republika Kosova”)

Republic of Upper Macedonia (like Upper Volta, aka Burkina Faso)

I think generally republics should be required to add meaningful adjectives to their names:

“Smallish Republic of Montenegro” (SROCG)

“Kinda Democratic Republic of Serbia” (KDROS)

“Democratic Federal and Sometimes Confederal Republic of Three Equal Constituent People and Nobody Else of Bosnia and Herzegovina” (DFSCRTECPNEBH)

Shmekers in Macedonia

Fast Food for Shmekers… I wonder if it schmeckts?

Food tips for Skopje

Here are some quick Yugo-nostalgic food tips for Skopje (in German, sorry)

Bishop behind bars


In case you always wondered what a bishop behind bars looked like, here’s a realistic picture (

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