Feature 25 Jun 13

Balkan Monuments: The Weird and Wonderful

From Bob Marley in Serbia to George W. Bush in Albania, the Balkans are full of unusual monuments to celebrities and political giants as well as memorials to past conflicts.

Besar Likmeta, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Nemanja Cabric, Boris Pavelic, Edona Peci, Milena Milosevic
Fushe Kruja, Skopje, Banatski Sokolac, Zagreb, Pristina, Podgorica

Albania’s George W. Bush

Statue of George W. Bush in Fushe Kruje | Photo by Besar Likmeta

When former US President George W. Bush came to Albania in June 2007, he was not a popular man - neither at home, nor in the Middle East and most places that he visited in Europe, where he often faced angry protests.

But in Albania, it was a different story – especially in the small town of Fushe Kruja, where his statue now adorns the main square. Bush visited the town on his way to the airport to discuss a US-funded microloan with a barber, a tailor and a shepherd, and he received a rock star’s welcome.

Festim Cela remembers the day fondly for good reason. The president of the United States stopped by his bar in Fushe Kruja for a coffee.

“He was a very simple and relaxed man, with his shirt buttons open and rolled-up sleeves, hardly official. My family and the town will never forget that day,” Cela recalled. 

The statue, which was unveiled in June 12, 2011, is the work of sculptors Qazim Kertusha and Ibrahim Reci.

Kertusha recalls that after the president’s stopover, prompted by the news coverage of the warm welcome and Bush’s support for Kosovo’s independence and Albania’s entry into NATO, they visited the town and convinced the local mayor and city council to approve a monument.

“Our favorite project as artists was a memorial shaped as a calendar to mark the powerful statements made by Bush there, which symbolised the beginning of a new era for our nation,” Kertusha said.

“However, the townspeople and those who had met him that day saw him as a warm and approachable man, so the city council opted to immortalise Bush in a statue,” he added.   

Kadri Veseli, now 80 years old, also remembers the day Bush visited vividly.

“Bush shook hands outside the coffee shop and then stopped by the baker where he ate a piece of bread,” Veseli recalls. “He was the president of the United States, but looked like a very nice and friendly man to me, and it’s very good thing we commemorated the visit with a monument,” he added.

Cela has since renamed his bar The George W. Bush Café. “For us, the visit is a matter of pride and for a long time we have wondered why he chose our town,” he said. “The statue will ensure that the visit will not be forgotten and withstand the sands of time.”

Macedonia’s Mother Theresa

Mother Teresa monument memorial house built in 2009 | Photo by Flickr/zoranpoposki

Catholic nun Mother Teresa may have won the Nobel peace prize, but in her hometown of Skopje, she has become the focus of a long-standing dispute between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje to an ethnic Albanian family, Mother Teresa won the Nobel for her 40 years of ministering to the poor and sick in India.

“By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun,” she once said.

Her heritage is also hotly contested by three neighbouring Balkan countries, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Skopje erected its first statue of the nun in the centre of the city in 1990, and in 2009 the government opened a Mother Theresa memorial house.

New plans soon to be implemented include a huge, 20-metre-high memorial complex on Skopje’s central square, funded by Indian businessman Subrata Roy and applauded by the Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

“No matter what we do, we can never do enough for Mother Teresa,” Gruevski said at the unveiling of the latest project in January

Meanwhile, neighbouring Albania has named its international airport, a hospital and a square after her.

She is also a beloved figure in Kosovo, where most towns have a square named after her.

Many ethnic Albanians from Macedonia and elsewhere do not like the fact that Macedonia has been emphasising the fact that she was born in Skopje, often describing her as “The Skopjan, Mother Teresa” while constantly omitting any mention of her Albanian ethnicity.

The opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, one of the strongest ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia, insists that the country should stop portraying the nun as its own.

“She [Mother Teresa], by origin and by her mission, does not belong to the Macedonian heritage. With unreserved concern we are following the insidious attempts of various Macedonian circles to cover up her Albanian roots, blurring it with confusing labels as ‘the Skopjan’ or ‘the Macedonian Citizen’,” the party said in a letter to the prime minister back in 2006.

The author of the book ‘Skopjan Mother Teresa’, Jasmina Mironski, argues however that by stating the nun’s place of birth, no one is denying her ethnic roots. She insists that no country should have the exclusive right to her heritage.

“It is impossible to appropriate a person,” Mironski said.

Employees at the Mother Theresa memorial house also insisted that her ethnicity should not be seen as important.

“We are not talking here about her as being Macedonian or Albanian. That does not matter to us here. She is a world-renowned humanitarian that was born in Skopje and I see nothing wrong in celebrating that fact,” said one employee who asked to remain anonymous.

But it some people strolling along the nearby pedestrian street thought differently.

“The Albanians have no right to prohibit us from celebrating Mother Teresa.  Why? Because she was born here and as far as I know it is not even 100 per cent clear whether she was Albanian or Vlach or something else,” said Angel Mojanov, a 30-year-old ethnic Macedonian.

“It is wrong to portray her as Macedonian because she is not, and the government should stop that,” said a 45-year-old ethnic Albanian who asked to remain anonymous, adding that “they should have at least written her name in Albanian [below the monument in central Skopje] if they wanted to show proper respect”.

Serbia’s Bob Marley

Statue of Bob Marley in Banatski Sokolac | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

In a lonely spot in front of a school in the tiny northern Serbian village of Banatski Sokolac, the Jamaican icon of peace and tolerance, reggae star Bob Marley, raises his fist to the sky.

“Warrior with a guitar in his hand,” the inscription at the base of the statue reads. Behind the Jamaican are some old Yugoslav monuments from the first and second world wars, creating a scene that is both ludicrous and humorous; an unintended piece of true Balkan improvisation.

The Marley monument, made from polyester by Croatian sculptor Davor Dukic, was erected in 2008 by Serbian and Croatian musicians during the annual Rock Village festival in the village which is home to fewer than 400 people.

It has been interpreted as a plea for reconciliation and a humanist, anti-war statement for ‘one love’ between peoples of all races. Coming after the unveiling of statues of boxer Rocky Balboa in Zitiste in Serbia and kung fu film star Bruce Lee in Mostar in Bosnia, it was suggested that such projects represented attempts by a younger generation to find heroes who could unite rather than divide.

“Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the bloodshed of the 1990s, people can rarely agree on their role models and prefer figures not linked to the region,” one press article suggested after the statue was erected.

But the Bruce Lee statue has since been removed after it was vandalised, and Banatski Sokolac’s Marley is not all that he seems either. The initiator of the project, Mirko Miljus, who organises the Rock Village festival, says the figure of the Jamaican star standing colourful and proud in the middle of nowhere on the Vojvodina plain is not actually a monument but a piece of stage décor “imagined as a part of the festival”.

He agreed that Marley was an international symbol of peace but said that the statue only really makes sense during the festival itself, when this “dying village livens up a bit”.

Sculptor Dukic insists however that it has genuine value as an artwork: “The statue is precious for all the people that live here,” he said, adding that there were incidents when skinheads and hooligans wanting to destroy it over the years, but locals and festival organisers managed to defend it.

Apart from the enduring popularity of his songs in the Balkans, there are some tenuous links between Marley and the former Yugoslavia. As a rasta, Marley worshipped former leader Josip Broz Tito’s friend Haile Selassie, an advocate of the Non-Aligned Movement that Yugoslavia founded. Marley was also Orthodox; he was baptised seven months before he died by the archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and thus shared his religion with an estimated 80 per cent of Serbs.

Croatia’s Nikola Tesla

Statue of Nikola Tesla in front of his memorial centre in Smiljani | Photo by MayaSimFan, Wikimedia commons

A statue of Nikola Tesla stands in a storage warehouse in Zagreb, a victim of a conflict that erupted long after the pioneering inventor died.

Tesla had Serb origins, but he was born in Croatia, and the statue was erected to commemorate him in the small Croatian town of Gospic near his home village of Smiljan in 1981, while Yugoslavia was still united. Serbia considers him a national hero and Belgrade’s airport is named after him.

The Tesla monument in Gospic was a replica of statues created by the famous Croatian sculptor Fran Krsinic at Niagara Falls and in Belgrade, but when Croatia’s war for independence began and ‘Serb’ symbols became targets, it was blown up by unknown attackers.

In 2006, when the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birthday was celebrated, the statue was restored at the Zagreb visual arts academy’s foundry, as part of a collaboration between the Croatian and Serbian culture ministries.

Nikola Cerjanc, the deputy director of the foundry, described the statue as a “masterpiece”.

But nonetheless it remained a hostage to nationalists who see Tesla as a Serb and therefore an enemy.

Three years ago, Gospic mayor Nikola Kolic said that the local authorities did not want Tesla back, but instead wanted a statue of wartime Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to be erected in his place.

Kolic is a member of the Croatian Democratic Union, a political party founded by Tudjman, who ruled Croatia at a time when many monuments were destroyed for political reasons.

In January this year, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic appealed to the Gospic authorities to bring Tesla back.

“Tesla is one of the rare people who belongs to the heritage of all mankind, and I think he should have a monument both in Zagreb and Gospic,” Milanovic said.

Despite this, the statue remains in storage at the foundry warehouse, waiting for the political winds to change.

Kosovo’s Bill Clinton

Statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina | Photo: Edona Peci

On Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina stands a three-metre-high statue of the former US President carrying a book inscribed with the date ‘24.3.1999’ – the day that NATO began the bombing raids that ended the Kosovo war in 1999.

The monument was built to thank Clinton for his role in ordering the bombardment of Serbia, and tens of thousands turned out to greet him when he attended the inauguration of the monument in November 2009, many of them waving the Stars and Stripes and holding up photos of their American hero.

“I never expected that anywhere someone would make such a big statute of me,” Clinton told the cheering crowd, saying that the sculptor “did a wonderful job”.

But critics in Kosovo have since complained that the statue is not only artistically inept but, perhaps worse, doesn’t even really look much like the ex-president.

The project was initiated by an Albanian-American group called ‘Friends of Bill Clinton, Friends of America’. The group spent 6,000 euro on the statue while the Pristina culture ministry donated around 20,000 euro and the Banka Private per Biznes (Private Bank for Business) also contributed an unnamed amount of money.

Critics have companied that the statue, designed and created by Izeir Mustafa, is not only shoddy and ugly but also poorly-placed among large buildings that dwarf Clinton.

Some passers-by in Kosovo’s capital were also deeply unimpressed.

“Once you enter Pristina and see the statute, you recognise it doesn’t even look like Clinton,” said Fisnik Nimoni, a student from Peja/Pec.

“The form of the statute - the hand raised up as a sign of salute - is similar to monuments of the communist period,” he added.

Mustafe Halili, former culture directorate chief at the municipality of Pristina, said the decision he signed to erect the statute where it now stands was “an appropriate one, because it had to be put in the boulevard which has the same name”.

But even Halili had to admit that a better job could have been done: “I do agree with the critics because the statute really lacks artistic values, but [Izeir] Mustafa [the sculptor] had already begun working on it when we started looking for an artist who would do it. Therefore we decided to give the money foreseen for the project to him,” he said.

Montenegro’s Vladimir Vysotsky

Statue of Vladimir Vysotsyi in Podgorica | Photo by Rasho992, Wikimedia Commons

How did a statue of the great Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky end up in Podgorica? Vysotsky wrote emotionally-charged songs and verse that made him a poet-hero across the former Soviet Union before he died in 1980 aged 42, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, but he is hardly a household name in the Balkans.

Vysotsky’s statue stands near the Millenium Bridge, a symbol of Montenegrin recovery after the turbulent 1990s, on the banks of the river Moraca, and is one of several monuments celebrating the country’s historical ties with Russia, which also include a statue of poet Alexander Pushkin.

Surrounded by a geometrical metal frame which reflects a blinding light in summertime, the Vysotsky monument depicts the singer bare-chested and barefoot, holding a guitar in one hand and raising his other arm in the air, while a skull nestles at the base of the pedestal.

The statue was installed in 2004 as a gift from Moscow, but most locals have little clue who Vysotsky is. “I think that building such a monument was a nice refreshment for the town, because of its cheerfulness,” said one woman who was passing by. Asked whether she knew who the monument celebrates, she simply replied: “A guitarist.” Indeed, that is how most Podgorica residents refer to the monument – as the ‘Russian guitarist’.

Vysotsky’s songs expressed “an explosive mixture of pain, humour, sarcasm and desperate longing for truth”, veteran Moscow rock critic Artemy Troitsky has written. He was shunned by the Soviet establishment but embraced by fans who turned out in their thousands for his funeral. Even now, he is an unusual choice of public symbol for a contemporary Russian government that is sometimes accused of authoritarianism.

But Podgorica’s culture secretary Hamdo Kocan explained that Vysotsky had once visited Montenegro and “passionately fell in love” with the country.

He said that Vysotsky wrote a poem about the country, a line of which is etched on his Podgorica monument: “I regret in this life that I don′t have two roots, and I can′t name Montenegro as my second homeland.”

More than two decades after his premature death, he finally returned, at least symbolically.

“Vladimir Vysotsky… had no idea that one day his statue would stand in this place. The monument to Vysotsky represents a new symbol of the centuries-old Montenegrin-Russian friendship,” said Russia’s then consul Yuri Bychkov at the opening ceremony, which was attended by the singer’s son Nikita.

Podgorica and Moscow have long maintained close links; when Russia declared war on Japan in 1904, Montenegro symbolically deployed a few of its soldiers in support. Indeed formal peace with Japan was only made over 100 years later, when Tokyo officially recognised the 2006 renewal of Montenegrin independence.

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In Pictures


Post-War Monuments in the Balkans

A photo gallery of statues and memorials across the former Yugoslavia, including tributes to guerrilla fighters, genocide victims, historical heroes, Hollywood actors and even a tin of canned beef.

Monumenti gallery produced in cooperation with forumZFD