A short trip to Skopje during the scorching hot summer of 2021 turned into a second trip that very fall which threw me right into the country’s politics. Two trips that took me deep into a world you never see as a tourist – from the grotesque megalomania on display in Skopje to villages near the Greek border. The common denominator: big money doing serious harm.
Skopje 2014 – Disneyfication of Skopje
Skopje 2014 – Disneyfication of Skopje by Gruevski
In July 2021 I arrived in Skopje as a relatively uninformed tourist and was first amazed by the majestic buildings lining the riverfront. After a while I felt, maybe it is a bit much, too big, over-sized. After a few talks with locals, I learned that “Skopje 2014” was a grotesquely expensive project started and implemented by the former prime minister Gruevski. A monument that made him kind of immortal. Eventually he was chased from the country and now lives in exile in Hungary.
Skopje 2014 – it was never finshed
One hundred and 37 amazing structures, including twenty-eight new buildings and five new squares, were constructed as part of the Skopje 2014 project in the Skopje city centre in the period between 2006 and 2017, costing more than €683.000.000. The scheme was announced in a press conference by the then Mayor of Skopje and the Minister of culture, all All of them were the closest allies of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who led the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE political party. Why? It was a narrative based on the idea of ethnic continuity since the times of Ancient Macedonians, and to give the capital the style of a “European metropolis. How do you ciphon off money from €683.000.000? Gruevski’s plastered Skopje with sculptures, large and small. How is able to assess the value of a piece of art, so these monuments are perfectly suited for funneling money from A to B.
Skopje is platterer with statues – their value is impossible to assess -the perfect tool for corruption
Skopje’s flashy riverfront
Travelling from Pristina to Skopje
Crossing the border from Kosovo into North Macedonia by bus, the temperature was 42 degrees Celsius. We were in the midst of the pandemic, nobody was wearing a mask in this cramped bus, and for the first time I felt relieved about a laxity that existed on the entire Balkan during the pandemic. I could not see myself breathing through a mask in this heat with sweat running down my face.
Travelling from Kosovo to Northern Macedonia by bus
After the check point I put my brand new passport in a compartment of my bag where I kept some chocolate. In Skopje, I spent an hour trying to clean it without destroying it completely.
Sleeping on a House Boat- Hotel Senigallia
Those house boats along the Vardar River are another left-over from Skopje 2014, only one is still running, but this one is realllly nice. I stayed there each time. The room is super quiet and cosy, mosquito screens keeps out unpleasant visitors which allows you to fall asleep to the Sounds of the river.
As I mentiond, the temperature was around 42 so it was almost impossible to ist outside, only really late in the evening. Staying so Close the river was the best place. Once I walked the center of Skopje at 10pm, the place was cooking.
Hotel Senigallia – restaurant with a view
The area outside the hotel is a pedestrian Zone and river Front walk where newly-weds like to have their photos taken. There are lots of other Restaurants along this stretch and the main Square of Skopje ist only a 5 minutes walk
Hotel Senigallia – my cozy room
Lobby of Hotel Senigallia -the furniture in the lobby is a bit colonial style,
Spectacular Mataka Canyon
I had to leave this cooking city and Mataka Canyon was the perfect place, absolutely spectacular, only a 30 minutes drive from Skopje. It would offer great hiking but with temperatures around 40 degrees I limited my movements to a boat trip and a visit to a cave so cold we had to wear jackets.
On that trip I met a few expats who returned for the summer to their village. One guy, who now lives in Switzerland, told me that another expat-friend from the same village had a garage built in the village they both came from. A special garage, all glass and transparent so everybody could admire his Ferrari. I will never forget that story.
But Skopje is not just the fake riverfront Gruevsky created and the posh center. There is the old bazaar that was spared from being torn down for some neo-classic psydo architecture by former PM Gruevski. But even the old bazaar came across as very proper. Other parts of Skopje I discovered when I returned that fall, October 202, to help Ana Petrovska campaign for Major of Skopje. These place look very different from the posh center and its fancy shops and restaurants.
Old Skopje- Bazaar
Talking about traffic, one evening a lot of cyclists gathered on the main square near the riverfront. I approached a young guy with who seemed to be one of the organizers and learned that these bike rides through Skopje remind citizens how little room is provided for sustainable mobility. He desperately tried to organize a bike for me so could participate, in vain. Even despite the enormous heat I would have grabbed the opportunity to explore Skopje this way. We have kept in touch and promised to devote ourselves to promote mobility that allows cities to strive and survive.
Ana Petrvoska- environmentalist
Ana Petrosvsky was the head of the inspectorate for the environment when I visited Skokje in July 2021. We spent long hours talking in cafes, where she described her difficult work, difficult because she met fierce resistance enforcing environmental laws in the very field. When worried citizens complained about serious contamination, she would personally drive there, take samples and fine whoever was responsible. In a country where a lot of issues are still solved a putting a few bank notes in somebody’s pocket, does make you popular. Things did not become easier when the tiny Green Party split
Campaigning in Skopje for Ana Petrosvski
When I returned in October 2021 has been dismissed from her job, probably for reasons mentioned above and running for mayor of Skopje.
Her dismissal had caused such an uproar among Skopje’s environmentalists that they begged her to run for mayor and pledged to give any support she needed. She had told me already in August and asked if could support her. She knew I had promised the people of Vetëvendosje in Pristina to help with their campaign. The election were held on the same weekend.
Ana Petrovska campaigning in election for Skopje’s Mayor
I was truly impressed with what I saw. Ana was extremely organized and had a team of enthusiastic young people around her, activists from Green Humane City. They were fed up with the existing system, in particular that severe pollution was going unpunished.
Together we Ana I attended various press conferences through out Skopje addressing these issues. My highlight was producing a video in an abandoned factory that would make a great venue for cultural events and a neighborhood for students. https://www.slobodenpecat.mk/…/foto-koalicijata-zelen…/
Other days we handed out flyers at the Green Bazar. A friendly smile, dobra den or dobro utro was enough for people to take my flyer. If people tried to engage in a conversation I got help from the others. One of the issuesaround the market area: many people cannot afford the fee to sell their goods inside the market, if they do so outside, the police fines them.
Campaigning for Ana Petrosvka at the Green Bazaar in Skopje
People selling randon things, they are too poor to pay for a Stalls inside
Campaighing for Ana Petroska at the Greene Bazaar in Skopje
The corruption is endless, even up on the old fortress overlooking Skopje illegal buildings had gone up and were legalised later.
The outcome of the October 2021 election was rather sobering.The political pendulum in North Macedonia swung from left to right, with the conservative VMRO-DPMNE winning almost every major city in the country, as well as the electoral “crown jewel” – the city of Skopje. Small movements like Ana’s stood no chance in this duel. It was really sad to see such enthusiasm and honesty not being appreciated by the voters.
Election in skopje- all parties are campaigning
Strumica – Citizens fighting off mining companies
Through Ana I got in touch with a group of activists in the south of the country, near the Greek border, in Strumica. This group was fighting against a mining project that would ruin their fertile valley forever. They had learned through friends in Canada about the plans of a Canadian mining company Euromarx Ressources. This multi-international company plans to run an open pit mine near Strumica set in the most fertile valley in southern Macedonia. In former Yugoslavia it used to be “vegetable garden” of the entire4 country.
Fertile valley around Strumica- a group of courageous people fight against the mining project about to destroy their land
The mine would not only destroy the forest, the habitat of all animals on that mountain, but also the livelihood of the local people. The cynide used to extract the gold and copper would contaminate their land. Plus, there was the danger that a dam built to store the material left after separating the valuable ore fraction, could break and bury the villages.
I was so impressed by their drive, like most citizens initiatives they worked 9 to 5 job and in their free time fought against giants. Out of a little basement in Strumica they produced leaflets, videos and worked social media accounts. They had a little press conference set up on now time when I arrived, they had briefed me in the car driving there.
Press conference in Strumica -the village is fighting against a Canadian mining company
My reward was an unforgettable dinner in restaurant in the countryside. The wooden plate with appetizers was so big, that I thought this was the main course and stuffed myself silly with all the goodies. When the main course – lots of meat – was served on an even bigger plate I was desperate. It did not want to come across as rude and stufet myself silly.
Rural restaurant near Strumica
Rural restaurant near Strumica
Dining in the country-side of Strumica with the Citizen’s Initiative fighting the mining project in their village
The group also ran in this local election and managed to get at least some of their people onto the city council.
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