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Feature 23 Nov 17

Macedonia’s ‘Alexander’ Statue Faces Uncertain Fate

Erected a few years ago as a symbol of national pride, talk of removing the giant statue of Alexander the Great from Skopje has stirred both political and aesthetic passions.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
 Photo: BIRN

Back in June 2011, some of the people of Skopje and people from other towns, who had come there just for the occasion, wept for joy as they watched a giant crane place a bronze equestrian statue of Alexander the Great on a tall pedestal in Skopje’s main “Macedonia” square.

The colossal 24-metre-high structure was widely seen as the culmination of the government-sponsored massive revamp of the capital, called “Skopje 2014”.

Critics of the then right-wing VMRO DPMNE-led government seemed unable to convince much of the population of its downsides.

They said it was too big to aesthetically fit the square and, after costing more than 8 million euro, was far too pricey for one of Europe’s poorest countries.

As many then feared, Greece also condemned the statue as “provocative”, claiming Alexander as exclusively part of Hellenic heritage.

Moreover, Greece used the issue to further justify blocking Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and EU, accusing its smaller neighbour of irredentism and of trying to “steal” its culture.

But the strong VMRO DPMNE propaganda machinery had no trouble in muffling criticism at home.

The statue would bring in revenue from tourists, it said, and would boost the country’s national identity.

Photo: BIRN

Greece had no right to complain, as the statue was formally named “Equestrian warrior”, not “Alexander the Great”, or “Alexander of Macedon” as many locals prefer to call the warrior king.

Seven years on, after almost 700 million euros was spent on Skopje 2014, Macedonia is still recuperating from a lengthy political crisis that ended only in May with the demise of VMRO DPMNE government, which was widely accused of criminality and authoritarian tendencies.

The new Social Democrat-led government, pressed by many of its supporters – who see the revamp as an irrational, megalomaniacal and corruption-ridden symbol of the past regime – has ordered a revision of the “Skopje 2014” project. It has also hinted it may even consider removing the huge statue altogether.

“There are several different opinions about what do with this statue. Removing it would be costly, on that we all agree,” a source close to the new government told BIRN under condition of anonymity.

“But if it has to go, if that is the final decision, whether out of diplomatic reasons [to appease Greece amid fresh attempts to settle the dispute] or otherwise, I wont’s shed a tear for that monstrosity,” the same source added.

Photo: BIRN

Officially, the Ministry of Culture says it has not reached any decision on the statue’s fate, awaiting further analysis.

However, the head of the new commission formed by the ministry to investigate each of the many statues erected under the project, Miroslav Grcev, caused a stir last week when he hinted at the possible removal of the giant monument.

This statue, along with several others, “will have to be removed” he told the media last week, stating as the main reason for this, that the previous government evaded due legal procedure by failing to consult the country’s parliament about it.

As the weak winter sun covers the statue dominating the square, most passersby seem uncertain about whether to remove all or part of it.

“It is so tall that I do not notice it anymore when I walk. All you can see is the fountain [beneath the statue], while the horse is way up there… you can see it only from a distance,” Borce, a lawyer from Skopje, told BIRN as he passed beneath its shadow.

“Maybe if we removed the horse but kept the fountain, that would be a good compromise,” he added.

“It is not particularly dear to me. We have so many statues now… beyond counting. If they remove it fine, if they don’t, fine again… Although I think we have more pressing issues now than spending money on removing it,” a woman called Snezana said, as she walked her two children in the square.

Slavko Matevski, a pensioner who lives near the main square, had no time for it. “This crazy thing should never have been erected here, as well as many other things,” he said.

“Who does it serve? Are we that rich? No! If they [the government] find a way to bring back the money spent on this, they can remove it, though I doubt that. Otherwise, let it stay and remind us of our own stupidity,” he added.

Photo: BIRN

But some others say the government would commit a humiliating act of national treason if it removed the equestrian warrior.

“Macedonia is forever! And this monument is here as a reminder. Why should anyone in their right mind remove it from its rightful place? To appease Greece?” asked Angele, a street seller of chestnuts as he served his customers.

“They [the Greeks] will just humiliate us and will continue to block us [from] NATO,” he added.

Statue seen as card in diplomatic poker game:

No one in the Foreign Ministry wants to state clearly whether Macedonia will remove the statue as a sign of good will as part of its renewed effort to bring Greece to the negotiation table over the long-standing dispute over Macedonia’s name.

“It won’t help our diplomacy if we reveal our strategies ahead of time,” one unnamed source from the Foreign Ministry told BIRN.

“Yes, we are aware of considerations that say this could help diplomatic efforts, by sending a positive signal to Greece, but we are at a very sensitive point right now, so I would not comment further.”

The long-expected re-boot of UN-sponsored name talks between Macedonia and Greece will take place on December 11-12 in Brussels.

The fresh round of talks comes as optimism grows in both countries about a settlement of the decades-old problem that has held up Macedonia’s aspirations to join NATO and the EU.

Macedonia’s new government, meanwhile, looks determined to stop adding to the earlier provocations.

Asked about the possible removal of the statue earlier this month, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov declined to give a clear answer but repeated that the past policies of Macedonian governments had been “harmful for Macedonia’s international image”.

Indicatively, Macedonia’s Diplomatic Club, which unites seasoned diplomats from all over the country, this month proposed renaming Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport after Macedonia’s first President, Kiro Gligorov, instead.

Photo: BIRN

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev quickly responded that he found that idea acceptable.

Resistance is brewing among the opposition:

The renaming of the airport would arguably be an easier pill for the government to swallow than removing a giant monument that the now opposition VMRO DPMNE party has vowed to protect.

Former Prime Minister and VMRO DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, who is widely regarded as the real mastermind behind Skopje’s controversial revamp, told the website Republika in an interview published last and this week, in four parts, that when his party comes back to power, they will rebuild any monuments that the current “marionette government” has removed in the meantime.

“Not from spite but because of our history, statehood, because of the great number of patriots in Macedonia who love their country and respect its history and the victims for today’s freedom. The return of the monuments will simply be VMRO DPMNE’s legacy,” Gruevski said.

Gruevski did not mention whether his party would stage protests or organize other forms of resistance, should the current government remove the giant statue.

It is uncertain, however, when or whether Gruevski’s party will return to power any time soon, following its crushing defeat at the local elections held in October.

It is also uncertain how long he can resist the growing calls for him to resign as party leader.

Both he and his closest associates face investigations and criminal charges filed by the country’s Special Prosecution for various alleged misdeeds committed during their time in power.

He may need to focus on his own fate, not that of the giant statue.

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