In North Macedonia, Disputes Over History Extend to Statues

The center of Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, a Balkan country born just 33 years ago as an independent state, is awash in history.

A statue of Alexander the Great looms over the central square. One of his father, Philip II of Macedon, towers above a nearby piazza atop an oversize pedestal. The city is also littered with tributes in bronze, stone and plaster to generations of other heroes from what the country sees as its glorious and very long history.

The problem, though, is that most of the history on display is claimed by other countries. Present-day North Macedonia, birthed by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, has no real connection to Alexander the Great, who lived 2,000 years ago down the road in what is now Greece, and many of the other historical figures honored with statues are Bulgarian.

Slavica Babamova, the director of the national archaeological museum, has spent her career digging up and displaying ancient artifacts and has no problem focusing on the past. But she said she was unsettled by the plethora of statues, erected by her country in an effort to build a state and national identity.

“We have such a rich history of our own — and so many things to say. But I don’t see any need to push all this overdone marketing,” she said, gesturing toward the Alexander the Great statue during an interview.

More important for North Macedonia and indisputably part of its history, she added, are the golden funeral mask and other stunning artifacts that predate Alexander and were found in an ancient necropolis near the village of Trebenishte in North Macedonia.

North Macedonia’s identity-building has long infuriated Greece, which claims ancient Macedonia as part of its own heritage and has a region named after it. Also angry is Bulgaria, another neighbor very possessive about some of the historical figures, particularly a 10th-century Bulgarian ruler, whose statues now crowd the center of Skopje.

Quarrels over who owns the past have not only unsettled scholars, but have also had serious consequences, blocking North Macedonia’s entry into the European Union. They have also clouded an ambitious nation-building project founded on history that others insist belongs to them — particularly Alexander the Great.

A conquering hero whose empire stretched from the Balkans to India in the fourth century B.C., Alexander was born in a city now in Greece. He did not live on the territory of what is today North Macedonia, historians generally agree, or speak its Slavic language. Slavs arrived in the area hundreds of years later.

But some of North Macedonia’s territory was actually part of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia and is scattered with archaeological sites containing artifacts from that time.

The problem, said Ms. Babamova, the museum director, is not that North Macedonia has no connection to the time of Alexander the Great but that it has overstated its claims. That, she added, started after the disintegration of Yugoslavia as nationalists began looking for ways to strengthen their fragile new state.

“At the end of the 1990s, there was a kind of hysteria,” she said.

Greece, furious when its neighbor declared independence in 1991 using the name Macedonia, vowed to block its entry into NATO and the European Union.

As part of a deal with Greece in 2018, it agreed to call itself North Macedonia, a name the Greek government accepted as sufficiently distant from the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia and Alexander the Great.

Just as tempers calmed with Greece, Bulgaria raised its own historical complaints, with nationalists there insisting that Macedonia was an artificial nation confected by communist anti-Nazi partisans, who proclaimed a state in 1944, and spoke a Bulgarian dialect. Bulgaria, an ally of Nazi Germany during World War II, threw up roadblocks in the way of European Union membership.

“We have the same problem with Bulgaria that Ukraine has with Russia. They say: ‘You don’t exist,’” said Nikola Minov, a history professor at Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje.

Ukraine has struggled to assert a separate identity against just the Russian Empire. But the land now called North Macedonia has had to deal with the Roman Empire, of which it was part for five centuries, the Ottoman Empire, which governed these parts until the early 20th century, and intermittent rule by other outside forces, including Serbs and Bulgarians.

Searching for a historical anchor with which to secure a new country whose only previous experience as an independent state lasted just 10 days in 1903, the central government a decade ago poured hundreds of millions of euros into a vast redevelopment project for Skopje.

It filled the city center with statues and turned drab government and commercial buildings into colonnaded palaces resembling a kitschy Hollywood set for a movie about ancient times.

The country’s restive ethnic Albanian minority also plunged into history as they asserted their own separate identity, erecting a big statue in honor of Skanderbeg, an Albanian military commander who, in the 15th century, led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire.

“I miss old Skopje,” Ms. Babamov, the museum director, said, waxing nostalgic for how her city looked before the invasion of statues and Greek-style columns. “It has lost its soul.”

The columns are mostly hollow and some of the ersatz ancient facades are already beginning to crumble. The prime minister who ordered the makeover, Nikola Gruevski, fled to Hungary in 2018 to escape a corruption conviction.

But his nationalism-tinged party has returned to power after winning a presidential and parliamentary election on May 8.

Its current leadership seems to have cooled its ardor for Alexander the Great, but sees no reason to remove his or the other statues. “This is not a fake history that we just manufactured,” the party’s deputy leader, Timco Mucunski, insisted. “There are historians who say that we have real connections” to ancient Macedonia.

Determined to hang onto that connection, the new government has angered Greece by signaling it wants to drop “north” from the name of the country. At a swearing-in ceremony in May, the newly elected president referred to it as just Macedonia, prompting a walkout by the Greek ambassador.

Mr. Mucunski, the new governing party’s deputy leader, said the 2018 agreement with Greece surrendering Macedonia as the country’s name would be honored as “a political and legal reality” but added: “Do we like it? No!”

Dalibor Jovanovski, a prominent Skopje historian, said he did not like the name “North Macedonia” either but saw it as the unfortunate price that had to be paid for entry into the European Union.

“Everyone always thinks that history only belongs to them, that there is no shared history,” he said. “But in this part of the world, everything is fluid. Everything is mixed up.”

Some Skopje residents say they do not like the clutter of so many statues, but many take pride in what they see as tributes to a proud, long history. “The Greeks claim him,” said Ljupcho Efremov, strolling past Alexander the Great. “But he was Alexander of Macedonia, not Alexander of Greece.”

Bisera Kostadinov-Stojchevska, a former minister of culture, said she had planned to clear the city of at least some of the statues by moving them to a park outside town. But she gave up after her staff, instructed to look for zoning law violations, found that “unfortunately, everything was legal.”

She said she was particularly eager to get rid of a big rendering of Czar Samuil, a 10th-century Bulgarian king. The statue, which faces Alexander, is not only ugly and obstructs the view, she said, but also “really annoys Bulgarians.”

She is not a big fan of Alexander the Great either. “I don’t feel connected to him at all. Not linguistically, not culturally, not emotionally.”

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