Macedonia’s Alexander the Great Statue Stokes Tensions

June 09, 2009 07:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
Critics of Macedonia’s plan to construct a giant statue of Alexander the Great say it will foment the country’s existing tensions with its Albanian minority and with Greece.

Alexander the Great Statue Could Hurt Macedonia’s Budget, Relations

During the fourth century B.C.E., Alexander the Great united approximately 2 million square miles of the world into an empire. In the present day, his legacy threatens greater divisions in the region near his believed place of birth.

Macedonia and Greece both claim the conqueror’s birthplace as their patrimony, something that British historians and archaeologists interviewed by the Associated Press argue could be successfully debated in either country’s favor, given the border changes that have occurred with the passing of time.

The opinion of outside academia notwithstanding, Macedonia’s plan to use government funds to construct an eight-story-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great in the capital city of Skopje stands to put the two countries at fresh odds. Scheduled to be erected next year, the sculpture, along with the reconstruction of a church and renderings of other historical figures, is set to cost €10 million ($14 million), not a paltry sum in a nation with a per capita GDP of $440.

It’s also likely to heap coals on the longstanding naming dispute with Greece. Since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the nation colloquially called Macedonia has gone by the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or FYROM for short, when sitting at the United Nations.

The reason the country uses that drawn-out name is that Macedonia is the name of a Greek province believed to be the homeland of Alexander the Great. Thus, Greece considers another country using the name as being disrespectful to Greek territory and culture and has blocked its neighbor’s NATO bid accordingly.

Newly elected Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has made ending the name standoff a top priority of his administration. According to Macedonian International News Agency, the name “Northern Macedonia” is rumored to be among the latest names to be proposed, however, Ivanov says that the new name will not be released until after the conclusion of negotiations including a UN envoy.

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Background: Alexander the Great row indicative of ethnic tensions, nationalism

On April 5, Ivanov emerged the victor in the nation’s presidential election. The country hoped the clean voting would further Macedonia’s bid for EU accession. Cultural tensions run high in the Balkans’ patchwork of ethnicities left behind after the Ottoman Empire. Part of this is strong adherence to national identity, endemic to both Macedonia and Greece.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said in a March 2008 Newsweek article cited by findingDulcinea that Greece maintains “a concept of a pure nation—one state, one nation, one religion, one culture, everything Greek” without recognizing its ethnic minorities.

But Macedonia has been accused of nationalism as well. The VMRO, the party of Macedonian Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski, claimed in an ad running before elections that all white people are Macedonian descendants. And Macedonia’s Albanian minority, who constitute about 25 percent of the country’s population, believe that the government is not heeding their concerns.

“A feeling has developed among the Albanians that the government favours one ethnic, one cultural and one religious group,” former Macedonian parliament member Mersel Biljali said in an interview with the Southeastern European Times. For example, part of the $14 million project in Skopje includes the rebuilding of a church ravaged by a 1962 earthquake. Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian contingent, many of whom are Muslims, argue that if government funds are being used to rebuild churches, they should also be used to rebuild mosques. Noting the widening gulf in interethnic tensions, former leader of Macedonia’s Social Democrat party Radmila Sekerinska told the AP that the situation is not germane to “Alexander-mania.”

Related Topic: Australian man claims Alexander the Great is buried Down Under

Macedonian-born Australian man Tim Tutungis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the remains of Alexander the Great may lie in a cave near Broome in the state of Western Australia. Tutungis says that his longtime friend Lou Batalis, volunteering for the Australian government, helped translate ancient Greek inscriptions discovered in a nearby cave that apparently said “Alexander the Great.”

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