Sofia Harwell, University of Washington

Jackson School of International Studies

Building National Anxiety: Macedonia's 'Skopje 2014' Project


The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s forced a reconfiguration of the federation into several independent nations. Though under Josip Broz Tito the cultural identity of Yugoslavia’s various republics was encouraged in a unique brand of ‘test-tube’ nationalism, the breakup nevertheless required nascent states to reinvent themselves in a new image. Macedonia, at various times governed by the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Yugoslavia, became an independent nation for the first time in its history.

A nation’s reinvention necessitates the reordering of symbols to reflect a new national consciousness, and Macedonia’s 'Skopje 2014' project represents a reordering of national symbols on a massive scale. Sponsored by the country’s ruling conservative party and managed by the government’s Ministry of Culture, 'Skopje 2014'is an ambitious urban plan that overhauls the center of Macedonia’s capital city. In total, the completion of the project will require approximately €80 million in public funding. New museums, building facades, monuments, bridges, a theatre, a Macedonian Orthodox church, and civic buildings are part of the plan that includes over 35 separate component parts, most of which invoke a glorious Macedonian past.

The story told by ‘Skopje 2014’ is by-and-large a mono-ethnic, mono-religious one that strives to establish lineage to a varied cast of historical characters. The project’s elements commemorate not only figures of early Christianity and members of a Slavic Macedonian political elite, but also a league of freedom fighters that fought for independence at stages of political and territorial domination over the past century. The lineage, however, extends farther back than the modern past: this small nation with strong ties to Slavic roots—evident in religion, language, and dominant cultural character—also claims lineage to the ancient Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great that held sway over the same land in the 4th century B.C.

The project is both a polarizing force internally and damaging to international credibility; yet, despite criticism, the governing elite continue to pour concrete and commission statues. Why, then, are monuments and museums important at this juncture, when the country’s citizens choke under financial burdens and the country’s entry into NATO and the EU hinges on humility and compromise? Almost 20 years after the country’s independence, Macedonia is still in the process of nation building, necessitating the physical manifestation of national symbols. It is the aim of this paper to assert that the sustained conflict with Greece; a still unresolved Albanian ethnic minority question; and Macedonia’s history of statelessness combine to drive the current compulsion of Macedonia’s governing elite to lay claim to national symbols in their public spaces.

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