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Skopje, City On the Make

Skopke, Le Ar de Triumph

Citizens of Skopje have nicknamed Macedonia’s capital the “déjà vu city.” Visitors can instantly understand why. Everywhere former prime minister Nikola Gruevski—“Mr. Cut and Paste,” as his compatriots dubbed him—traveled on state visits, he would admire a particular world monument, return to Skopje, and replicate it. When Gruevski went to Paris in 2009, he was fascinated by the way islands of willow trees interrupted the flow of the Seine. So he had three exorbitantly priced trees dispatched from New Zealand and planted on specially erected platforms in the Vardar River. Hope, Love, and Faith—the names given to the trees at their dedication—slump weakly in the Balkan spring. When Gruevski went to Sydney later that year, he saw replicas of ancient galleons that had been converted into museums. So back home in Skopje, two concrete pirate ships—one a restaurant, one a hotel—are now parked on the right bank of the Vardar. A third vessel, currently a set of cement stilts in the water, will eventually offer a nightclub. Walk elsewhere around Skopje, and you can find an Epcot-style assemblage of world landmarks: the Arc de Triomphe, the London Eye, the White House, the Pantheon, the Brandenburg Gate. “We pray that Gruevski doesn’t go to Venice,” one Skopjian told me. “We will be commuting to work in gondolas.”

It’s never been easy to say exactly who the Macedonians are. The Republic of Macedonia was established in 1991 after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Bordered by Albania to the west and Greece to the south, the republic contains a large Albanian minority and engenders smoldering resentment from Greece, which claims the rightful use of the name Macedonia for its northern region. But Gruevski spent his decade in power trying to forge a distinct Macedonian identity. The grassroots reconstruction of the Macedonian capital is part of a project called “Skopje 2014.” As its name painfully reminds Macedonians, the initiative is now two years behind schedule; what’s more, it’s expected to cost them approximately one-tenth of their GDP.

Gruevski saw “Skopje 2014” as a way to erase the capital’s Communist past and boost the Macedonian tourism industry, but the timing of the project was not lost on anyone: officials announced “Skopje 2014” just two years after Greece denied Macedonia a place at the 2008 NATO Summit. For twenty-five years now, Greece has refused Macedonia entry into both the EU and NATO, insisting that “Macedonia” belongs to the Greeks. Converting his capital into a classical theme park was Gruevksi’s provocative attempt to show Greece—and the world—which small southeast European nation is the true inheritor of antiquity.

Traditionally, Skopje’s built environment has said more about its conquerors than its inhabitants. A few years ago, Macedonian television aired a documentary about an elderly woman who lived on what is now Makedonia Street. Even though she never vacated the apartment, she saw her address change four times in her lifetime: from Boulevard Petr to Boulevard Czarov to Boulevard Marshal Tito to Makedonia Street. The city around her, meanwhile, had been ravaged by the Second World War—and, in 1963, flattened by an earthquake that destroyed 75 to 80 percent of its buildings and left the hands of the old railway station clock stuck at 5:17, where they remain to this day. For a brief period, Skopje became one of the largest construction sites on Earth. Belgrade and Moscow and Washington competed to give aid. The task of designing “new Skopje” went to a Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, who left the city an austere jumble of concrete cylinders and utilitarian housing blocks.

“Only the best for Macedonia!” a biker named Ivo said, gesturing toward a €1 million statue of a groveling beggar.

Despite all this construction and reconstruction, the gritty incongruities of the Balkans have never left Skopje. Walking at night in the suburbs, I watched teenagers race BMWs under the desperate grayness of Communist-era apartment buildings. During the day, I visited the old Albanian and Turkish neighborhoods on the left bank of the Vardar. I crossed the Stone Bridge—a sturdy construction where, for three days in 1689, the anti-Ottoman rebel Karposh was impaled, kebab-like, on a stake until his insides dematerialized. Across the bridge, huddled beneath crumbling Justinian fortifications, is Čaršija, a slope of terracotta roofs pierced with minarets and laced with stone alleyways. I passed an antique shop that sells Yugoslav Army trench coats. Men in white skullcaps played backgammon, plucked at a çiftelia, chain-drank tea out of hourglass cups, and put off their obligations until nesër, “tomorrow.”

Just outside Skopje, I visited Shutka, one of the largest gypsy communities in Europe and the only one in the world that still uses Romani—the traditional language of gypsies—as its official language. Many Shutka gypsies still live in the corrugated iron shacks constructed by U.S. Army engineers in 1963. Above them loom the stark yellow high-rises of Amdi Bajram, the local strongman whose unorthodox methods of securing votes were recently laid bare by WikiLeaks. Election morning, thousands of left-footed shoes were distributed to Roma voters with the promise that if Bajram won the election by nightfall, right-footed shoes would also be distributed. Everywhere in Shutka, I saw the gypsies’ haphazard attempts at sedentary existence: the clothes hung from a string and washed with a hose, the rusted-out truck bed doubling as a vegetable garden, the scrap metal bartered for bread. On a nearby telephone pole, posters advertised a Sunday goose fight.

Back in the city center, I met some of the new citizenry. Almost all the “Skopje 2014” statues were cast in pure Florentine bronze. “Only the best for Macedonia!” a biker named Ivo said, gesturing toward a €1 million statue of a groveling beggar. Opposite the beggar, a €1.5 million bronze shoe shiner polishes away. “An actual shoe shiner here would need to work thirty thousand days to purchase that,” Ivo said, and then rode away. I crossed back over the Vardar to the Archaeological Museum. The “Bridge of Civilizations” is lined with legends from the Macedonian past. What would Gabriel, the somber-looking Byzantine hermit on my right, think of Paionia, the pagan priestess supplicating the Olympians on my left? And what punishment would Alexander the Great mete out to the men who cast the statue of him suckling at his mother’s breast?

Protest Painters
© Vanco Dzambaski Protest painters

Free Fall in Marble

Next to the Prosecutor’s Office—a spaceship structure that looks like it’s ripped from the pages of Vitruvius—I encountered the nine muses idling beneath a glitzy Corinthian portico. Tiny speakers attached to their heads emitted intermittent high-pitch rings to ward off descending pigeons. On top of the nearby government buildings, where the state decided against putting bronze Macedonians, I spotted the clay Macedonians. Their exact identities are contested by the locals. “Surely it’s the stepmother of Saint Cyril’s second-cousin. We haven’t yet commemorated her,” a Macedonian joked to me. Very few statues in “Skopje 2014” are of ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia’s population.

The centerpiece of “Skopje 2014” is the “Warrior on a Horse”—an eight-story triumphal column featuring Alexander the Great atop Bucephalus, his horse. From the circular platform on which Bucephalus rears his front legs, a shower of rain falls into a basin that simultaneously shoots water up in an elaborate choreography of jet streams, some of them vomited out of the mouths of roaring lions. During the day, police are assigned to the fountain to prevent gypsies from using it as a bathtub. At dusk, as Skopjians retreat through the square on their way home from work, gilded lampposts blare Wagner, the theme score from E.T., and Bing Crosby Christmas tunes. At night, the fountain doubles as a light show: Alexander charges atop a revolving halo of rainbow skylights.

We know that Gruevski designed much of “Skopje 2014” because he has said so himself. In February 2015, opposition parties in Macedonia revealed that Gruevski had been conducting the largest illegal surveillance program in Europe since the dismantling of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. Over a four-year period, the government recorded the telephone conversations of some twenty thousand handpicked Macedonians. The beauty of the program was that it also swept up Gruevski himself in the surveillance net—and the substance of his conversations led the European Union to intervene in Macedonia last summer and force his resignation.

The wiretaps laid bare much of the xenophobia, criminality, and corruption well known to the long-suffering citizens of the Balkans. There were long discussions of rampant nepotism and Olympian-scale kickback schemes. There was an exchange in which Gruevski explained his decision to park his €600,000 Mercedes outside Skopje, where reporters could not see it. There were racist rants about Albanians and plans to falsify electoral ballots—and even a bid to cover up a murder. But amid all this cronyism and mayhem, the wiretaps also revealed Gruevski carefully pondering the architectural craft. “No, the columns we saw on our trip to Washington were Classical columns,” he reprimands an adviser at one point. “I want Baroque for Skopje.” In another tape, he insists that all marble balconies in Skopje must be no more, and no less, than “two-and-a-half meters long.” “Behind the Universal Hall, I want a fountain. Like that one from Rome,” he says in still another conversation. The new telecommunications tower, he warns an underling, must be done “with marble, not some plaster that looks like marble.”

Public Art, Without the Public

The wiretaps revealed, as well, what Gruevski’s opponents had suspected for years: “Skopje 2014” is a vast money-laundering project. Construction contracts were handed out to party loyalists. Gruevski exploited a curious loophole to enrich himself. After all, how can you really put a price tag on something so ineffably, and so subjectively, beautiful as a statue of a shoe shiner? For almost everything in “Skopje 2014,” the Macedonian state deliberately paid at least two or three times the cost of construction and materials. Banks provided Gruevski the loans; Gruevski’s party will likely receive its duly appointed 5 percent kickback on every construction project; Macedonians—and their grandchildren—will be stuck with the debt.

At the Radiobar Café, I met a group called the Raspeani Skopjani, the “Singing Skopjians.” Its fifteen members used to gather every Sunday morning to sing in protest against different aspects of Gruevski’s authoritarianism. “To say that ‘Skopje 2014’ is ugly is to completely miss the point. It completely defies the concept of public space, how a community gathers. Many citizens here refuse to walk through their own downtown. They feel insulted,” one singer, Ivana Dragsiqi, told me. “Gruevski controls the papers and the news stations. His police stomp out our rallies. We had to come up with an asymmetrical form of protest.” Raspeani Skopjani got their inspiration from Horkestar, a chorus in Serbia that protests Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarianism. From Skopje, the idea has spread: nearly every former Yugoslav country now has a chorus of protesters. They’ve hosted one another on a rotating basis.

Skopje 2014 is a vast money-laundering project, and Macedonians will be stuck with the debt.

Each Singing Skopjians ballad is tailored to a different complaint against the government. To protest the Macedonian Church’s spending habits, they gathered outside the Church of St. Clement of Ohrid and sang Janis Joplin’s immortal refrain, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” When Gruevski began cutting down the trees lining Ilindenska Boulevard, they sang Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song.” “The tragedy is that Skopje was a truly international city,” Filip Jovanovski, a singer, told me. “At the height of the Cold War, in 1963, the world came together here to help us rebuild. Poland gifted us an art museum. London lent us double-decker buses. Romania gave us a hospital.”

Together Filip and I walked opposite the government building where Gruevski was building the headquarters for MEPSO, the “Electricity Transmission System Operator of Macedonia.” We watched as workers laid a thin layer of gleaming white plaster over cold blocks of rebar and concrete. The plaster, one of them told us, had tiny bits of glass in it, “so that the building glows when lit up at night.” The finished half of the Electricity Transmission System resembled a Doric Greek temple; the unfinished half resembled a prison complex. “Our government puts on a pluralistic, democratic face to the world,” Filip said. “But underneath, we’re the same regime we were under Tito. Skopje is Gruevski’s Potemkin village.”

In one of the final wiretapped conversations released to the public, Gruevski is heard ordering his culture minister not to appear at any parliamentary sessions that might attempt to prosecute the architects of “Skopje 2014.” “If we’re asked about ‘Skopje 2014,’” he says, “we will lose the next election.” Most Skopjians I met would be content with that—and maybe another (nonfatal) earthquake thrown in for good measure.