Urban struggles: Activist citizenship in South-East Europe I

Ljubica Spaskovska
Skopje 2014

The Battle for Skopje – urban citizenship and the legacy of the past

People make cities, but cities make citizens.

Richard Rogers

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 three-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 a recent 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 (as a recent study conducted by the Institute for Social sciences and Humanities “Skopje 2014 and the project’s effects on the identity narratives” showed). The city was progressively losing its green spaces and in particular its modernist architectural identity, embodied in several landmark objects associated with the post-1963 earthquake reconstruction led by a team of 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 are to receive a new faux-baroque facade to match the rest of the transformed city core (and without the approval of their authors).  

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 recently unveiled in the media. The architect of the new facade, who had also worked on several other of Skopje’s new neo-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 last week’s violent protests by pro-government supporters in front of the Municipality of Centar - the only municipality in Skopje led by a mayor from the opposition bloc, liberal Andrej Žernovski. 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 protesters were seen shouting “Communist gang” at the employees of the municipality council while the council was in session. Moreover, the police was at times reluctant to intervene as the protesters took to breaking windows and fences, which additionally strengthened the view among opponents of governmental policies that the state and its institutions are hijacked by the party (the coalition) in power.

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 the largest civic gathering so far. 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 structure, while on the afternoon of 15 June 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 the most recent protest which took place in Skopje on 16 June, 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 this year in the middle of the night and in the presence of armed police forces.

Benevolent criticism, however, has targeted the fact that the GTC initiative is belated and comes at a time when most of the city centre has already been transformed beyond recognition. Citizens have insisted on the brutal alienation of the city, of intrusion into their intimate cartographies and life stories.

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. Mapping 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. Political elites seem to overlook the fact that “the past cannot give us what the future has failed to deliver”.


Ljubica Spaskovska is a CITSEE Associate Researcher and former Research Felow and a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.