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Politics and architecture intersect in North Macedonia


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Christopher Livesay: You might not expect big things from the capital of a landlocked Balkan country that's smaller than the state of New Hampshire. But Skopje, North Macedonia, might surprise you. There are the typical tourist sites. Like this ancient fortress. And a sprawling Ottoman bazaar where the local specialty, Macedonian peppers are sold by the bagful. These pale green "zeleni piperki" are on the hot side. But what really makes Skopje special is this. And this. And these. Hundreds of statues. And classical-looking, but actually brand new facades on dozens of buildings in the city center.

Christopher Livesay: What's the name of the square here?

Nikola Srbov: Macedonia.

Christopher Livesay: Macedonia Square.

Nikola Srbov: Yes.

Christopher Livesay: Nikola Srbov, a historian and advisor to the state archives says this was all built by the government just a few years ago, a project called Skopje 2014. The idea was to give a facelift to this formerly communist city, boost national pride and attract tourists too.

Nikola Srbov: In a way the city has grown into something more beautiful than it used to be.

Christopher Livesay: Museums and government buildings boast "columns" and "marble-look-alike facades" that are meant to look hundreds of years old, but are less than 10. There's also a Triumphal Arch. And two new bridges across the Varda River that have on them about 30 statues each. Not everyone has been impressed. The New York Times called the remodeled city one of the "kitschiest" capitals on the planet. Tourists we met seemed bemused.

Tourist: It's amazing. We never, we've been in more than 36 countries. We never seen this number of statues everywhere.

Zoran Zaev: Somebody mentioned that this monument, Disneyland monuments.

Christopher Livesay: Disneyland monuments?

Zoran Zaev: Yes. A lot of comments happen.

Christopher Livesay: Zoran Zaev is the head of North Macedonia's ruling party. He was Prime Minister up until recently. He resigned last month after the country failed to win membership in the European Union. He says the building project, which was launched by the country's previous right-wing nationalist government is partly to blame for setting the country back.

Zoran Zaev: I don't want to comment, the style, but I always comment, to spend one billion euros.

Christopher Livesay: One billion euros?

Zoran Zaev: Yes, for that monuments and museums in the center of our capital, it's really stupid. It's very wrong for developing country where is a lot of poor people.

Christopher Livesay: In fact, while tourism numbers are up in the last several years, it is still a very small percentage of the country's economy. The average net income here is only about 450 dollars a month.

Christopher Livesay: When you walk to the back of the building you see well it's not exactly what it seems.

Christopher Livesay: Peeking behind the neoclassical facades gives a glimpse of the reality of how people live. Insulation in most apartments and homes is so bad, heating can cost up to half an average salary. In just one hour south of Skopje, the issue isn't fake facades.

Goce Pavlovski: Cultural heritage to all of us and it should be something that unites us, not divides us.

Christopher Livesay: Archeologist Goce Pavlovski is working on research and protection of the ancient city of Stobi. Here artifacts like these church mosaics date back to 400 AD.

Goce Pavlovski: The games would start in the morning.

Christopher Livesay: Even older is this Roman theater. And older still, ruins of structures dating to the time of Alexander the Great. For Pavlovski it's all part of a bigger picture. Archaeology, he says, shows how people in the region share a single heritage. Modern borders are a kind of political mirage.

Christopher Livesay: Who gets to claim this? Who gets to say this is my history?

Goce Pavlovski: Humanity. I would say humanity. You don't claim history. History is there. History is not the property of certain nations. It's the property of the territory where people live. So the rulers get changed. The countries can change. Their borders can change and the history stays there. As for all the statues in Skopje, well they're subject to history, too.

Zoran Zaev: Part of our citizens are in favor to take out these monuments.

Christopher Livesay: Sounds controversial.

Zoran Zaev: To take them out. To put it in other places. That cost money also. It's not easier to that. Every dollar, every dinar for us is very precious to find solutions to everyday problems. Every what money what we have it we must put in our health system, in our education system, new jobs for our young people. That is the high discussion in our society.

Christopher Livesay: Zaev hopes if his pro-western party wins in upcoming elections this spring it will help renew the chances the country will be admitted to the EU. Building friendships, he says, is more important than building monuments to the past.

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