We asked Dr Ljubica Spaskovska, Associate Research Fellow in History at the University of Exeter to describe the response of Skopje citizens to the contemporary reconstruction of the city.
Spaskovska is an Associate Research Fellow on the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘1989 after 1989: The Fall of State-Socialism in a Global Perspective’, led by Professor James Mark.
She says: “I am exploring the lives of those who became the representatives and the beneficiaries of the formidable international/transnational web socialist Yugoslavia constructed over the course of 45 years. Thourgh (auto) biographies and oral histories, I seek to trace the experience of a variety of groups and additionally explore the ways they made sense of the end of Yugoslavia and the disappearence of the world where it had played a major role.”
Between 2009 and 2014 Spaskovska was also part – both as a full-time research fellow and as a research collaborator – of the University of Edinburgh based project ‘Europeanisation of citizenship in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia’ CITSEE
“People make cities, but cities make citizens.”
What in 1999 Catherine Verdery termed “a veritable orgy of historical revisionism, of writing the communist period out of the past”, more than a decade later is materialising in the Macedonian capital, the finale of a four-year construction frenzy.
When the comprehensive neo-classical/baroque redesign of the Macedonian capital was introduced back in 2010, “many assumed it was some sort of joke”, as an article in the Economist noted. However, as new museums, administrative buildings, monuments, statues, fountains, glittery bridge fences and new street name plaques were springing up simultaneously, the urban core of Skopje was being adorned with new, mostly unfamiliar historical styles and figures (see the study conducted by the Institute for Social sciences and Humanities “Skopje 2014 and the project’s effects on the identity narratives”).
The city has been progressively losing its green spaces and in particular its modernist architectural identity. These were embodied in several landmark objects associated with the post-1963 earthquake reconstruction led by the famous Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. While the first phase of the redefinition of the central public space was centred on construction, it was the second phase of an envisioned make-over of already existing objects (most notably the seat of the Government and the central city mall) that unleashed the revolt of the citizens. Both of the buildings built in the 1970s were to receive a new faux-baroque façade to match the rest of the transformed city core, and without the approval of their authors.
The new façade of the Government building which will completely transform the glass-covered modernist exterior is close to completion. Built in 1970, the former seat of the League of Communists of Macedonia is the work of architect Petar Muličkovski (born 1929), who was one of the eminent Yugoslav architects who spent extensive periods abroad and studied at some of the most prestigious universities (Muličkovski spent time at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Arizona, with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, at Berkeley and at Harvard).
Although well acquainted with modern architecture and international trends, Yugoslav architects sought to creatively reinterpret the core tenets of modernism and adapt them to the local context and develop some sort of regional modernism (in the Macedonian case by adding elements reminiscent of the traditional Macedonian house, for example). Hence, paradoxically, the ‘neoclassical’ style the masterminds of the Skopje 2014 project had envisioned as the new, more genuinely Macedonian face for the capital (presenting the socialist period as an aberration), in fact managed to obliterate precisely what was in many ways much more authentic. Muličkovski publicly protested the make-over of his modernist building, but the authorities decided to ignore the author. Two anonymous young architects were commissioned to ‘re-write’ the legacy of Macedonian/Yugoslav modernism.
The entire project aims to instil a new political and (ethno) national narrative into the public domain – and this is not without precedent. The House of Terror in Budapest, the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the Romanian Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes are some of the post-socialist institutions which were set up to introduce new hegemonic patterns of memory and official historical knowledge. However, none of the former Yugoslav republics has gone to the same lengths of investing into grandiose and completely novel sites of memory which simultaneously serve to invent a new tradition and to erase the socialist/Yugoslav past, without wider public debate and consultations.
This erasure became real when the new look of the central Skopje city mall was unveiled in the media. The architect of the new façade, who had also worked on several other of Skopje’s new faux-baroque buildings, has failed to appear in the media. In a statement he alluded to an ideological battle with the architects who once used to be communist stars. One of the points of contention has been precisely the observation that for the most part the main sculptors and architects of “Skopje 2014” are young, obscure names with almost non-existent portfolios or international experience. Moreover, some of them have been attempting to advance a completely new paradigm, arguing that the city is only reclaiming its long lost past: “The city’s Baroque architecture was smashed, damaged and burned at the end of the 17th century. It was the first Baroque city in the Ottoman Empire, we are trying to revive that era”.
Stigmatising political opponents and civic anti-government initiatives as communist, or “left fascism” is not a new phenomenon in the post-Yugoslav region. Rhetorically the ruling elite and its supporters have frequently framed their intolerance for oppositional voices and their political credo in a derogatory manner and in an outright anti-communist discourse, which was also visible at the violent protests by pro-government supporters in front of the Municipality of Centar in June 2013 – the only municipality in Skopje led by a mayor from the opposition bloc, liberal Andrej Žernovski. The protesters were seen shouting “Communist gang” at the employees of the municipality council while the council was in session. Moreover, the police were at times reluctant to intervene as the protesters took to breaking windows and fences. This strengthened the view among opponents of governmental policies that the state and its institutions were hijacked by the conservative parties (coalition) in power.
Žernovski launched an extensive investigation into the financial aspect of the whole project and in interviews has been adamant that he is determined to prevent further loss of urban green areas to construction investors. The two reports scrutinized the implication of the former municipal authorities in the Skopje 2014 project, detected a number of irregularities at every stage and underlined that the rule of law was violated as the Municipality did not act according to its legal authority. Moreover, it did not have the jurisdiction to plan or execute buildings on the river bank and the procedures were such that they created space for misuse of the budget through violation of the Law on public procurement (the report quotes a sum of 8 million Euros).
After three years of debates in the media, political commentary and smaller-scale (yet not less important) initiatives by NGOs such as “Freedom Square” (the so-called “First Architectural Uprising” in 2009 when the students were physically attacked by counter-protesters) and the self-organized choir “Raspeani Skopjani”, Skopje witnessed one of the largest civic gatherings in the summer of 2013.
Under the motto “I love GTC” (GTC stands for “city shopping mall”) and at the initiative of the Association of Architects of Macedonia, more than 4000 people in a single day signed the petition against the transformation of the modernist city mall, while on the afternoon of 15 June 2013 several thousand turned up to form a human chain around it. In a country where the political spectrum is divided across ethnic lines, this mobilization of citizens was also an act of patching up across cemented lines of division. In a local protest which followed soon afterwards, citizens from the Chair municipality, carrying banners written in both Albanian and Macedonian, protested in front of the municipality against the decision to hand over parts of their park to private investors for building of collective apartment blocks. Fighting against the destruction of green spaces in the city has its pre-history in many similar protests in the past – most notably against the cutting down of the decades-old trees on Ilindenska Street in 2009 and the destruction of the park near the Old Railway Station in April of 2013 in the middle of the night and in the presence of armed police forces.
Benevolent criticism centred on the fact that the GTC initiative was belated and came at a time when most of the city centre had already been transformed beyond recognition. Citizens have pointed to the brutal alienation of the city, violation of basic urban planning principles, of intrusion into their intimate cartographies and life stories, and most notably of large-scale corruption.
However, new forms of activism in the form of alternative educational city tours have emerged recently as a way to reclaim old, forgotten “sites of memory” from the antifascist liberation struggle. For instance, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Skopje on 13 November 2014, a group of civil society activists organised an ‘educational tour through the historical locations of 13 November 1944’, as a response to the state policies of purposefully neglecting the antifascist monuments, museums and surviving veterans.
What is more, the city authorities completely removed a monument commemorating the massacre of nine civilians in the city centre by the retreating German army in 1944 because the monument did not fit into the newly redesigned square where the statue of Philip II dominates the skyline. These spontaneous gatherings serve to map the contours of a context-specific counter-memory, if understood as a “collective practice of relearning of forgotten, suppressed, and excluded histories”.
Regardless of the context-specific background of Skopje’s urban battles, there is a trans-national story of urban activism to be told, from Istanbul to London, in particular targeting undemocratic practices of usurpation of public/green spaces either by authoritarian leaders or private investors (see Occupy LSX Oral History Trail). A wave of neo-conservative politics, tendencies of desecularization, corruption, control over media and growing social and economic gaps actually form the background of public discontent, creative activism and urban sociality and cross-ethnic solidarity. Indeed, the mapping of a new historical narrative onto the capital’s face has come at the cost of hundreds of millions of Euros of public money (official figures are at 208 million) and without a wider public debate and transparent decision-making. At the same time, Skopje remains one of the most polluted cities in Europe, the income inequality gap is among the highest in the post-socialist world and most of the young are trying to find ways to leave the country. Political elites seem to overlook the fact that “the past cannot give us what the future has failed to deliver”.