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Feature 04 Sep 17

Macedonians Split Over New Skenderbeg Square

A new square in the Macednian capital named after the Albanian hero, Skenderbeg, is beginning to take its final shape - but not everyone is happy about its look or its cost.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

As a new square in Skopje, named after the Albanian hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeg, nears completion, there is concern over its high cost and appeal to Albanian nationalism – as well as admiration.

The city's Albanian-dominated municipality of Cair on Friday said construction of the square, aimed at honouring Albanian heroes – who were largely omitted under the previous government's “Skopje 2014” project – is nearing completion.

Located in the city centre, near the entrance to the Old Turkish Bazaar, the new public space is just several hundred metres from Skopje's main Macedonia Square.

Covering 8,000 square meters, which were gained by encapsulating part of the Bazaar, visitors could be excused for not realizing immediately that the vast elevated surface, approachable by massive staircases, is actually a square.

The centerpiece is a tall equestrian bronze statue of the famous Albanian warrrior, which was originally placed there in 2007. However, for the purpose of the new square, its pedestal has been significantly raised.

A newly revealed wide mural depicts key scenes from Albanian history, various scholars, humanitarians and an assortment of freedom fighters.

The mural will be adorned by a waterfall-like fountain, whose waters will flow over the top, from the upper level of the square to the ground level.

The walls of some of the staircases are also decorated with murals depicting key Albanian historic towns and other national insignia, such as the two-headed eagle, which is associated with Skanderbeg and later became the Albanian national symbol.

The elevated square offers interesting vistas of the surrounding Old Bazaar, the fortress and the other areas in the city centre. It is dominated by sphere-shaped canopies that are the only things there providing shade from the still scorching sun.

Symbols and cost both raise eyebrows:

Although still not complete, as the final stage of the project involves adding an underground car park, the new square has already started attracting visitors.

"I cannot understand it, but it is kind of interesting. It looks more like a memorial and not like a square, but I like the view," Staffan, a Swedish tourist who was on a visit to Skopje, said.

Among the country's ethnic Macedonian majority – and the Albanian minority that makes up about a quarter of the population – both the cost and the symbols divide opinion.

"All the best. That's what I have to say," Besnik, a 45-year-old man of Albanian descent, said. "The Albanian heroes depicted here should not bother Macedonians. They are not directed against them. They are simply symbols of [Albanian] national pride, and since Macedonians have their own share of sculptures, I don't see why Albanians can't have the same," he said.

But Lulzim, a taxidriver who is also Albanian, says the 14 million euros, paid by the government through the municipality, could have been spent much better on other things.

"Much of Cair does not have proper sewers or running water, we have no parking and much of the municipality is in chaos. But no, they had to spend the money on this, which I suppose is nice but means nothing to me, as it won't make my life better," Lulzim told BIRN.

Jasmina, a 28-year-old Macedonian who visits the Old Bazaar for shopping, says she is bothered by by the new Albanian symbols.

"For me, this is just marking out territory. That part [pointing towards Macedonia Square] is Macedonian, so this part should now be Albanian. That is wrong and nationalistic," she said.

In 2001, a brief armed conflict between the security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents ended with the signing of the Ohrid peace accord, which gave the country's Albanians more rights.

Cair is run by the main Albanian party in the country, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, whose leaders previously led the insurgents – and who for the past eight years have been part of the national government.

However, in 2010 the party was annoyed by the launch of the "Skopje 2014" revamp of the city, pushed by the then Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, which it said ignored Albanians and glorified only ethnic Macedonian history.

In the years that followed, the party downplayed its criticism, however, after squeezing out some budget money for the square – and after persuading its senior government partners to add several more statues of Albanian heroes to the massive city-wide revamp.

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