Friday, February 12, 2010

Bombastic Skopje project attracts scorn

A bombastic government project to revamp Skopje, Macedonia's bland capital, has caused both ridicule and scorn among citizens of the small Balkan country.

A giant triumphal arch, a newly built multi-dome orthodox church, dozens of statues, and the reconstruction of buildings that had been destroyed by the 1963 earthquake will completely alter the look of Skopje's central square.

The project, known as Skopje 2014, is highly controversial. Plans for a huge statue of Alexander the Great are likely to deepen the dispute with Macedonia's southern neighbour Greece about names and history. Athens opposes Skopje's wish to call the country "Republic of Macedonia" and to portray it as the legitimate heir of Alexander's short-lived giant empire.

Macedonia's Albanian minority is upset as well. The plan does not include any monument dedicated to that ethnic group's history, despite the fact that they represent 25 percent of the population.

Idjet Memeti from DUI, the Albanian junior partner in the governing coalition, has described the project as "a political pamphlet that will deepen the ethnic rift between the two main communities."

Macedonian opposition parties call the concept ugly and say there should be a referendum on it. Meanwhile, the cost of "Skopje 2014" remains unclear. Leaked estimates point to a total amount of around €200 million. The mayor of Skopje claims the project will cost no more than €80 million. Macedonians earn an average €300 a month.

Nikola Naumoski, head of the "Freedom Square" NGO, believes the government is holding back confidential data indicating that total expenditure on the project will be much higher than current estimates. His organisation has already staged massive protests and promises to turn them into a steady campaign.

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