A statue of the Serbian emperor Dusan. Screen grab from the video below.
 
The recent erection of a statue depicting Dusan, the Serbian emperor who ruled over Macedonia and conquered Albanian regions in the 14th century, has riled the Macedonian Albanians of Skopje, the country’s capital. The monument was attacked and severely damaged just days after it was installed. Our Observer views the sudden installation of this statue as an act of political provocation.
 
The year 2010 saw the launch of “Skopje 2014”, a massive campaign to set up new monuments around the capital. The ongoing projects include the “civilisation bridge” over the Vardar River, which will be decorated with 29 statues of important figures that marked the country’s history. However, though the list of statues had already been confirmed, their number suddenly jumped up to 37. Among the eight additional statues, that of Tsar Dusan caused quite a stir. It was installed in early December and subsequently attacked by members of Macedonia’s Albanian minority (which account for 25% of the population) in the early hours of Sunday morning. According to local Albanian media, this group included ministers and executive officers of the DUI Albanian party, part of a coalition government that is led by the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
 
Amateur video showing Emperor Dusan's statue. 
 
Emperor Dusan (1308-1355) raised the Serbian empire to its apex of power and influence, but he is not close to Albanians’ hearts—not unlike the many other Serbian leaders that annexed primarily Albanian regions over the centuries.
 
These eight new statues have been very controversial, particularly because the organisation that ordered the installation of these additional monuments remains unclear: none of the three overseers of Skopje 2014 (the national government, the city government, and the city centre government) have claimed the decision as their own—nor have they denounced the move.
 
The aim of Skopje 2014 was to attract tourists and increase Macedonians’ sense of civic unity by rallying them around common historical references, thereby legitimizing the country, whose very existence remains controversial. Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but Greece still rejects the use of the name Macedonia, which is also the name of a Greek region. Bulgaria also rejects Macedonia’s independence, claiming that Macedonians are actually Bulgarian nationals.

“They're using important historical figures to bend history for political purposes”

Suad Marsini is a Macedonian of Albanian origin. He resides in Skopje and leads the Centre for Civil Society Research, a human rights NGO.
 
Most Macedonians of Albanian origin are shocked by the installation of the statue of Tsar Dusan in Skopje. I can understand why: this man has a negative reputation in our community. But the tension caused by the statue can also be attributed to two political parties: the VMRO-DPMNE did nothing to explain to citizens the role that Dusan played in Skopje’s history [he was crowned emperor of the city and turned it into the capital of the Serbian empire], while the leaders of the Albanian DUI — including ministers — rushed to desecrate the statue.
 
I wouldn’t be surprised if the actions of these two political parties were staged. The cohabitation between Albanians and Macedonians here is generally good, but political parties have consistently stoked tensions around election season, or at other times to distract public attention away from economic problems, notably. The disagreements between the coalition’s two parties are on the rise, and the VRMO-DPMNE may be gunning for legislative elections in the hopes of reaching an absolute majority, so as to cease having to share power with the Albanian DUI. Two years ago, the government decided to hold legislative elections after a similar story: a church was built without the DUI’s approval and was subsequently attacked by Macedonians of Albanian origin.
 
“Political parties are at the root of this tension”
 
References to so-called historical “great men” are part of a political strategy by the Macedonian government, which is trying to bring the country together around common references. This is particularly the case with Alexander the Great, whom many in the country consider as being Macedonian. In the face of criticism from neighbouring countries, the government is trying to demonstrate that the country has existed for centuries.
 
I dislike this disproportionate use of historical figures; it’s an “antiquating” of modern political life, a sort of manipulation of history for political ends. Moreover, “Skopje 2014” was extremely expensive, and according to my calculations will end up costing about three times the stated cost of 207 million euros. This is absurd, given that the country’s annual budget is a mere 2.6 billion euros. Everyone around me deplores these extravagant expenses, given that our railway system is in terrible shape and that 31% of Macedonians are unemployed.
 
The Skopje 2014 project is expected to profoundly change the face of the city, which was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1963 that destroyed most of its historic monuments. The renovation of damaged buildings and the construction of triumphal arches, rotundas, fountains, and an opera have all added fire to the controversy surrounding the project: many view their neoclassical style as being in poor taste, and the total budget allocated to the project remains opaque.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).