Notes from Skopje, Europe’s ‘Capital of Kitsch’

This piece was originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

The cobblestoned streets of Skopje’s Old Bazaar are lined by barbershops, grocers’ and Ottoman-era inns, offering a portal to another time. Nearby, the 6th century Kale Fortress overlooks the city, and the historical Stone Bridge connects the Old Bazaar to the main square. As you make your way across the bridge, however, authenticity becomes increasingly harder to spot, obscured by newly erected buildings with classical facades, shiny bronze statues and marble fountains.

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“You’re spending ten days in Skopje?” my Airbnb host, Blagoja, had exclaimed as we drove through the city from the airport. He listed nearby places I could visit – Sofia, Kosovo, Ohrid – so I wouldn’t have to spend all my time in what he said was a rather boring city.

Skopje, though, is far from boring. How could it be, with all the animated sculptures, monuments, brand-new neoclassical and faux baroque-style buildings turning it into a bizarre theme park of sorts? Across the city, you’ll also find examples of genuine Soviet-era Brutalist architecture, which emerged as a response to the devastating 1963 earthquake that destroyed much of the city and claimed over a thousand lives. But 1 sq. km of Skopje’s most central area has been overtaken by brassy statues.

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Mothers cradle their newborn children by the fountain; four unamused lions perch on the edges of the Goce Delcev bridge; a triumphal arch – made of concrete but painted white to resemble limestone – attempts to mimic the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Bridge of Kitsch

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On the Bridge of the Arts, people stop to take selfies with sculptures of celebrated Macedonian figuers, fourteen on either side of the bridge and one in the middle. Peering down, you spot a statue of a female swimmer preparing to dive into the Vardar river. Further down the river, pirate ships are firmly planted in the water, functioning as hotels.

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A 22-metre-high monument of a man on horseback rises from a marble fountain and towers over the main square surrounded by bars, restaurants and billboards. Named the “Equestrian Warrior,” the monument is widely understood to represent Alexander the Great.

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This “beautification” is a result of the Skopje 2014 project kick-started by then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in the year 2010 to increase the classical appeal of North Maedonia’s capital and draw in visitors. Nine years later, whether the city’s dour Soviet appearance has been improved by the addition of these arbitrary structures is arguable (many locals tell me no) but the hodgepodge of “nationalist kitsch” has undoubtedly succeeded in attracting curious tourists, with the number of visitors in Skopje rising by 16.6% in 2017.

The cost of Skopje 2014 was initially pegged at $100 million. But by 2015, both the number of structures and total expenditure had drastically risen, hovering over $730 million according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Aside from the questionable aesthetics and inflated costs of the project, it has drawn sharp criticism over charges of corruption, frivolous spending and lack of transparency.

Nationalist Project

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Underneath its kitschy exterior, Skopje 2014 appears to have another goal – one of enforcing a sense of national identity in a country that has had Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serb rulers over the years, and has been caught in a naming dispute with Greece over its claims to Hellenic heritage, which the latter regarded as irredentist.

But the creation of a national identity has also historically gone hand-in-hand with identifying and excluding the Other. In this case, that appears to be North Macedonia’s significant Albanian minority, which comprises a quarter of the population. The fervent attempts to showcase links to Western antiquity haven’t gone unnoticed, and neither has the problematic avoidance of Albanian cultural symbols and history.

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In recent years, protests erupted across Skopje, leading to the conviction and early resignation of Nikola Gruevski. In 2017, Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev was elected Prime Minister, who promptly halted ongoing construction on the Skopje 2014 project.

The future of Skopje’s existing monuments and buildings, though, remains uncertain. For now, Europe’s “capital of kitsch” continues to perplex and intrigue unsuspecting visitors.

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