A bid to rename hundreds of streets is stirring a heated ideological and ethnic debate in Skopje.
monument in down-town Skopje | Photo by: Balkan Insight
For the first time in the two decades that have passed since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia, the capital is getting ready for mass changes in the names of its streets.
On Monday the city council of Skopje, working behind closed doors, approved some 240 new street names proposed by the ruling centre-right VMRO DPMNE and its ethnic Albanian junior partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.
Officials from both parties say that a list of about 1,000 new names is in the pipeline.
While the ruling parties, holding a majority on the city council, justify the move by appealing to a need to reflect the reality of Macedonia’s statehood, others are deeply concerned.
The main opposition Social Democrats say they suspect that the move forms part of a bid to write off important figures linked with Yugoslavia’s anti-Fascist wartime struggle and subsequent Communist history - and replace them with controversial names that fit the ruling party’s nationalist ideology.
An additional, separate controversy concerns the battle to include names drawn from the Albanian community, who make up about a quarter of the country’s population as well as about a quarter of the population of Skopje.
The inclusion of their heroes may prove most problematic of all as a little more than a decade ago, in 2001, the country saw a short but bloody armed conflict between Macedonians and Albanian rebels.
As the bidding for new names heats up, observers urge caution, arguing that too much ethnic and ideological bickering over street names could lead Macedonia into uncharted territory.
Skopje | Photo by: Balkan Insight
But government officials say something has to change.
“Many streets in Skopje were named after people or events steaming from the old Communist ideology,” one VMRO DPMNE member of the city council told Balkan Insight.
“There is no point in honoring bureaucrats from the past regime and with this move we aim to change that.”
The official did not wish to give his name, partly because the ruling party has not clarified its position on the future renaming of the streets.
One novelty in the proposals is the inclusion of figures from the Classical Antiquity – all designed to fit the government ideology that today’s Macedonians are the heirs to Alexander the Great.
They want streets and boulevards named after the ancient warrior king as well as after his father, Philip.
Although last year’s decision to erect a giant statue of Alexander in Skopje angered neighbouring Greece, which says Alexander is an exclusively Hellenic figure, the VMRO DPMNE government of Nikola Gruevski still insists that he belongs in Macedonia’s own pantheon and thus deserves a street or two.
Another novelty is the inclusion of names of 19th and 20th-century nationalists who in the Communist era were denounced as reactionary servants of foreign interests.
Such figures include Todor Aleksandrov or Vanco Mihajlov, both members of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, VMRO, which fought for Macedonia’s independence from Ottoman rule but was in some periods closely linked to Bulgaria.
Monument of Skopje's WW2 Liberators | Photo by: Balkan Insight
Both were previously considered too pro-Bulgarian in their beliefs and thus undeserving of hero status.
Interestingly, while the ruling party has not forgotten to include one former Macedonian Communist leader, Krste Crvenkovski, it also wants a street named “Victims of Communism”.
None of that is music to the ears of the Social Democrats, the party seen as the direct successor to the old League of Communists of Macedonia.
They fear that the renaming process forms part of an agenda to create a different national identity for Macedonia, which includes discrediting important figures from the past who made a real contribution to the country.
“Important elements of Macedonia’s statehood are being put into direct question,” Gordan Georgiev, vice president of the Social Democrats, complains.
“The ruling parties have an obligation to respect the deeds of historic figures who contributed to the formation of the Macedonian state,” he adds.
This party says now is not the right time to draw up new street names en masse, and it charges VMRO DPMNE with being too secretive about the entire operation. As an alternative, the party proposes that all new names be put to a referendum.
The last attempt to rename some 40 streets in Skopje in 1993, shortly after Macedonia became independent, ended in fiasco when the Constitutional Court annulled this move, citing procedural errors.
As a result, Skopje’s central square, which then was renamed "Macedonia Square", is still formally named after the former Yugoslav leader, Marshal Tito.
So is Macedonia’s main street, which people now call “Macedonia Street” but is officially still listed as “Marshal Tito Street”.
Skenderbeg statue in Skopje | Photo by: Richard Schofild
Apart from the ideological clash between the two main parties, the announcement that Albanian heroes will be included has triggered additional controversy.
In a recent interview for the daily newspaper Dnevnik, the DUI vice-president, Izet Mexiti, revealed that his party has already made a “gentlemen’s deal” with VMRO DPMNE concerning the inclusion of Albanian heroes.
Streets named after the 15th-century Albanian warrior George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the prize-winning writer Ismail Kadare, former Albanian Prime Minister Hasan Prishtina and the 19th-century Albanian revolutionary Dervish Cara are thus likely to be approved by the city council, sources told Balkan Insight.
There have also been proposals to name streets after the Albanian capital, Tirana, and the Kosovo capital, Prishtina.
But VMRO DPMNE remains cagy about the terms of the deal, which could yet unravel.
Macedonia saw an armed conflict between Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces in 2001. The conflict ended the same year with a peace accord that guaranteed greater tights to Albanians and amnesty for the Albanian fighters. But the whole issue remains controversial and sensitive.
According to Mexiti, one of the main points of the deal was that both parties have agreed not to propose names that might irritate the other side.
This includes names of fighters, or soldiers, killed in the 2001 conflict who may be martyrs in the eyes of one community and terrorists in the eyes of the other.
Neither war veteran organization is happy with that announced compromise as both ethnic Macedonian and Albanian veterans think their heroes are being unjustly omitted.
“The deal between VMRO DPMNE and DUI is shameful because it puts us in the same basket as the NLA,” Zvonko Trencevski, head of the Dostoinstvo [Dignity] veterans association, said, referring to the National Liberation Army, the armed formation of the former Albanian rebels.
Skopje | Photo by: Sanja Nikolic
Trencevski says it is wrong to equate former rebel paramilitaries with the security forces of the state.
The small rightist opposition VMRO-People’s Party holds the same line. It recently proposed 58 street names, honouring Macedonian war veterans killed in the conflict in 2001.
But Besim Hoda, from the Association of Albanian War Veterans, says his people want their version of the struggle commemorated.
“Our struggle was for the improvement of the position of the Albanians, not for street names,” he says. “But it would only be fair if our killed fighters got their own monument in Skopje as the Macedonian veterans did last year.”
They, too, have supporters on the city council. The ethnic Albanian opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, has included names of Albanian killed fighters in its own proposals.
Meanwhile scholars advise caution.
Violeta Ackovska, history professor at Skopje University, says changing street names is a natural process that must be handled with delicacy.
“Unlike some countries like Britain, which have not changed their political system for centuries, history in the Balkans is turbulent and each change in the political system brings its own heroes,” she notes.
She argues that a consensus needs to be reached that a person chosen for the honor of having his or her street has played a positive role in the country’s history.
“One needs to be very careful” she says.
This article is Premium Content. In order to gain access to it, please login to your account below if you are already a Premium Subscriber, or subscribe to one of our Premium Content packages.
Our Premium Service gives you full access to all content published on BalkanInsight.com, including analyses, investigations, comments, interviews and more. Choose your subscription today and get unparalleled in-depth coverage of the Western Balkans.
If you have trouble logging in or any other questions regarding you account, please contact us