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Urban Renewal Or Nationalist Kitsch? Skopje 2014 Stirs Controversy

The construction site of Macedonia's new Archaeology Museum in the center of Skopje. It is one of many new buildings and statues that are part of an elaborate makeover for the city.
The construction site of Macedonia's new Archaeology Museum in the center of Skopje. It is one of many new buildings and statues that are part of an elaborate makeover for the city.
Visitors to downtown Skopje will have a hard time missing the massive and brightly lit equestrian statue of Alexander the Great. Set on a marble fountain, it stands 22-meters high.

Just a short walk away is the gleaming white "Porta Macedonia," modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

And those are just a couple of dozens of ornate bronze and marble monuments that have sprung up in the Macedonian capital over the past three years. Part of the government's Skopje 2014 architectural project, they are designed to evoke Macedonia's Ottoman and Hellenic heritage.

The effort has irritated Greece, which already takes issue with Macedonia's name and which claims figures like Alexander the Great as central to its own national identity.

But complaints about Skopje 2014 aren't coming just from Athens. Lately, they have come from Macedonians themselves, with large majorities saying they disapprove of the project.

"The biggest reason why [Skopje 2014] is unpopular among people is the corruption and the finances," says Nikola Naumovski, a member of the civil rights group Plostad Sloboda ("Freedom Square"). "The residents are more worried about the money spent, than the spatial or aesthetic aspects of Skopje 2014."

In addition to the cost of the project amid an economic crisis and 28 percent unemployment, critics have assailed the lack of transparency in bidding for the projects. Many have also derided the aesthetics as "nationalist kitsch."

Cost Overruns

Macedonia's government claims the project has cost taxpayers 208 million euros so far. But critics say the price tag is at least 300 million euros -- and possibly as high as 500 million.

The Alexander the Great statue is a case in point. When the project was first announced, tender notices estimated the cost at 487,000 euros. But when the project was completed, it ended up costing the government nearly three times that much -- approximately 1.4 million euros.

The state auditor has released figures showing similar cost overruns on several Skopje 2014 projects.

Critics have long alleged that the high cost of the projects is the result of a lack of transparency in the bidding process, which they claim is rife with corruption.

Such allegations were a key issue in local elections in March when the center-right ruling party, the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, lost control of Skopje's Centar municipality (where 90 percent of the construction took place) to the opposition Social Democratic Union.

After the elections, the Centar municipality's new mayor, Andrej Zernovski, set up a review commission whose findings appeared to give credence to the corruption allegations.

In November, the commission reported that an uncompetitive bidding process cost the local budget approximately 8 million euros.

After the elections, Zernovski, also vowed to halt any additional any new construction plans.

"There will be no new [construction projects] from Skopje 2014 which will usurp free space in the Centar municipality," he said. "Unfortunately, we can't change what is already in the detailed urban plans the previous government adopted."

PHOTO GALLERY: Skopje's Neoclassicist Makeover

Skopje 2014 is also widely unpopular nationwide. A September public opinion poll showed that 67.3 percent of Macedonians disapprove of it from a financial point of view. Moreover, 73 percent are wary of the project and believe it should not continue.

Despite this, the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has remained committed to completing Skopje 2014.

It's unclear how many more monuments will be built before the project wraps up next year. Observers say it would be difficult to get any new projects off the ground in time.

And that would be fine with Robert Dandarov, a New York-based Macedonian architect and one of the project's fiercest critics.

"Skopje, to be honest, has turned into an encyclopedia of 'kitsch,'" he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report

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