The white stone of Skopje's Macedonia Square is dazzling in the spring sunshine, but locals remember well a very different city by the Vardar river. "When I was growing up, much of the centre of Skopje was almost like fields or unkempt parks," says Cvetin Chilimanov, a journalist and prominent conservative commentator.
“I remember stray dogs dragging bones around and dog poo everywhere. Over there, there was a parking lot, a few flowerpots and newspaper and snack kiosks,” he recalls of downtown Skopje during the Yugoslav era and much of its post-1991 independence.
Today, he is sitting in a cafe that looks onto a towering 48-tonne bronze of Alexander the Great atop a rearing Bucephalus, and the Porta Macedonia, a marble-clad triumphal arch depicting scenes of ancient glory.
It is fitting that Macedonia’s two-year political crisis, which is now in a new and dangerous phase, has played out among scores of statues and monuments that are the most striking legacy of Nikola Gruevski’s decade in power.
Liberal protesters who regularly rallied in Skopje last year splattered the Porta Macedonia and other Gruevski creations with multi-coloured paint, mocking what they regard as symbols of his alleged corruption and populist bombast.
Now thousands of other Macedonians are marching most evenings. They have draped the statues with their country’s red-and-yellow colours in a show of patriotism and, for many of them, support for the man who built them.
Skopje’s new sculptures, facades and huge flags also speak of a young country’s struggle to secure its identity and the respect of its neighbours, and of ethnic relations that are again under strain – few statues honour members of the 25 per cent Albanian minority in this mostly Slav country of two million people.
Ethnic Albanian parties now want to form a government with the Social Democrats, but the protesters, Gruevski's nationalist party and his ally president Gjorge Ivanov say their plan to boost Albanians' rights could destabilise Macedonia and ultimately destroy it.
The European Union, United States and Nato back the coalition, while Russia agrees with Gruevski that the reform plan – which was discussed with neighbouring Albania – could cause national and regional chaos.
The stand-off has crushed hopes that last December's election would end the crisis, and deepened divisions between those who demand change and the prosecution of Gruevski and his allies for graft, election rigging and other alleged crimes, and those who see Macedonia and its former premier as victims of a conspiracy between western powers and Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Echoing other right-wingers such as Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and supporters of US president Donald Trump, Gruevski accuses the billionaire of meddling in politics and pushing a radical liberal agenda, and he has called for the "de-Sorosisation" of Macedonia.
“We are fighting a relic of the communist times kept alive by Soros money and the Obama administration. There has been clear partisan support from the US embassy in Skopje for the Social Democrats,” says Chilimanov, who is a co-founder of an organisation called SOS – Stop Operation Soros.
Chilimanov plays down the seriousness of the alleged spying and corruption revealed in the wiretaps that brought down Gruevski, and believes they were leaked as part of a special operation by a western power.
Claims of foreign conspiracy find fertile ground in Macedonia, a tiny nation in a turbulent region, whose very name and identity are questioned by its neighbours.
Athens will not allow Macedonia to join Nato or the EU while it uses the same name as a region of northern Greece, and it resents what it calls Skopje's baseless claim to the legacy of Alexander the Great.
To the north, Serbia's main church does not recognise the independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, while to the east in Bulgaria many experts and the general public regard Macedonian as a mere dialect of their own language.
Now ties with western neighbour Albania are under scrutiny and the West is calling for calm in Macedonia, which almost plunged into inter-ethnic war in 2001. “When Gruevski has problems he pushes conspiracy theories and nationalist issues,” says Slagjana Taseva, the head of Transparency International in Macedonia. “A lot of people are badly informed and rely on state-controlled media. They think Gruevski paid for the statues with his own money, not theirs. They don’t realise how much was stolen or the scale of corruption,” she says.
“Now Gruevski and his friends are trying to buy some time. But they can’t avoid prosecution forever.”