It is not uncommon for visitors to Skopje to feel like they are being watched.
They know Macedonia's current crisis stems from a vast eavesdropping operation allegedly run by state security, and soon realise it is futile to try and flee the unblinking stare of the capital's most imposing figures. These are scores of statues born of a huge building project launched in 2010 by then prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who sought to beautify a ramshackle, neglected Skopje and glorify Macedonia's contested history.
Lavish government buildings, museums and concert halls appeared, tired old heaps were given neoclassical facades, more bridges were thrown over the Vardar river, and shiny statues were dedicated to everyone from Philip of Macedon to the anti-Ottoman rebels from which Gruevski’s party claims descent.
At the heart of the new Skopje loom a triumphal arch engraved with scenes from official Macedonian history, and a towering Alexander the Great, his sword aloft, horse rearing, atop a pillar set among bronze lions and gushing fountains.
The fountains emit music, as do faux-19th century lanterns overlooking freshly planted palm trees beside the Vardar; one recent spring morning, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Hark the Herald Angels Sing rang out, as workers toiled in the hot sun on a wooden mock-galleon that will house a luxury restaurant.
Many Macedonians like Skopje’s new look and credit Gruevski and his allies for taking bold steps to reinvigorate the city and attract tourists.
Yet just as many, if not more, denounce an aesthetic that combines kitsch with nationalist bombast, and they question the wisdom and legality of spending an alleged €560 million on such a vanity project in one of Europe’s poorest states.
For critics of Gruevski, who resigned with his government in January as part of an EU-brokered bid to end a spiralling political crisis, Skopje’s facelift provides a metaphor for his rule.
They accuse Gruevski, during his nine years in power, of allowing corruption and cronyism to flourish behind a thin facade of “shared European values” and fake pledges to reform
to secure EU and
For many Macedonians that facade finally crumbled last year, when leaked wiretaps implicated several of Gruevski’s top allies and many other influential figures in alleged crimes ranging from vote-rigging to a murder cover-up. Gruevski denied the claims, and accused opponents of plotting a coup with foreign help.
As the wiretap scandal grew, however, another dramatic event seized the nation’s attention.
One year ago today, the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo woke to heavy gunfire and grenade blasts, armoured vehicles on the streets and a military helicopter swooping low over an area called Divo Naselje, or “Wild District”.
According to officials, for the next day-and-a-half police special forces battled a heavily armed gang of fighters led by former rebels from neighbouring Kosovo.
When the dust settled and police withdrew, eight of their officers were dead, along with 10 gunmen from what Gruevski’s government called “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans”.
“We lost eight men who prevented the murder of possibly 8,000,” Gruevski said, claiming the gunmen had planned “large-scale attacks against state institutions and civilian targets, such as police stations, shopping malls and sports events”.
Fears of civil war
The clashes sparked fears of further destabilisation in mostly Slavic Macedonia, where in 2001 a brief insurgency by rebels from the country’s ethnic Albanian minority threatened to trigger civil war.
Twelve months on, many Macedonians suspect the Kumanovo bloodshed was another facade – a government ploy to distract attention from the wiretap scandal, and to push the west into backing Gruevski as a stabilising factor in a still-troubled region.
Ethnic Albanian politicians will lead a rally in Kumanovo today to demand a full, open inquiry into the case, amid reports that some of the 29 men now being tried over the violence claim to have been tortured in police custody.
Meanwhile, Macedonia’s crisis continues, June’s snap elections are in doubt and Skopje is undergoing another facelift, this time from protesters who pelt Gruevski’s solemn statues, gleaming ministries and even his soaring triumphal arch with their low-cost, high-impact weapons – balloons full of brightly coloured paint.