Report Former Yugoslavia

Balkan delusions of grandeur

In a phenomenon that has emerged in cities as diverse as Skopje, Niš and Split, the states of the former Yugoslavia are been swept by a craze for megalomaniac monuments. Croatian writer Jurica Pavicic examines the vogue for these nationalist monstrosities, and concludes their goal is to rewrite history.

Published on 3 October 2011 at 14:05
To avoid trouble with Greece, this statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, Macedonia, is called "Warrior on a Horse".

Just a few days before the mayor of Split, Zeljko Kerum, announced the construction of the world’s largest statue of Jesus on the Riva - Split’s seafront boulevard - another local “sherif”, 200 kilometres to the northeast, the Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, accompanied by “his” architect in chief, the illustrious film director Emir Kusturica, officially inaugurated the Kamengrad project in Višegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Kamengrad project will build an ensemble of fake historic buildings in Višegrad, on the banks of the Drina, not far from the landmark made famous in the novel by Ivo Andrić (Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961), Bridge on the Drina. Like a local Disneyland, Kamengrad is designed to serve as the location for the screen adaptation of Andrić’s novel.

Once the film has been shot, the installation, which will cost 30 millions euros, will permanently replace a large section of Old Višegrad, which is so ordinary and Bosnian. “A full gamut of historical periods will be represented, including the Renaissance, which the Turkish invasion prevented from reaching the people of the Balkans,” explains Kusturica, who clearly has his own personal understanding of history.

Sense of brotherhood

Kamengrad and the future statue of Jesus in Split are prime examples of the monument mania that has swept across Balkans in recent times. Now that the guns in this part of the world have fallen silent, architecture has assumed a role in politics, which, by force of circumstance (thank you Europe!), has become less belligerent, but is still imbued with a taste for symbols and outsize proportions.

In Niš in southern Serbia, authorities are planning to build “the world’s largest cross” on a site that is just next to the motorway that traverses the city. In Skopje, Macedonia, work has just been completed on a ghastly piece of kitsch in a similar vein: a 24-metre high bronze of Alexander the Great [which, to avoid further trouble with the Greeks, will officially be called Warrior on a Horse].

In just a few years, the nationalist administration in Macedonia has succeeded in defacing the centre of Skopje, which was a prime example of modern urban planning, designed by Kenzo Tange in the wake of the earthquake in 1960, by transforming it into a park of vulgar sculptures representing “national heroes.” In Split, the mayor has made it clear that he will not be content with his representation of Jesus only, but is also planning to erect statues of Jean-Paul II, and the first Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, among others.

In western societies monument building, which coincided with the edification of the nation (between the 18th and 20th centuries), aimed to provide the people with an array of images of heroes and myths that would act as a rallying call and help them forget their divisions. Monuments were designed to contribute to a sense of brotherhood that would bind societies and identities together.

Symbolic purification

In the Balkans, monuments have a very different function, which is to compensate for real or imagined historical lacunae. The idea that nationalists are wholly focused on History is in fact completely erroneous, because they are never content with an accurate account of the history of their own people but always eager to imagine alternative histories.

In the Balkans, monuments are regulated by a logic which aims to exclude the Other. The architectural excesses of the VMRO [the right-wing nationalist party in office in Macedonia] are not designed to reinforce a notion of what it is to be Macedonian but to obliterate the inconvenient legacy of modernist internationalism under Tito, and the memory of old Ottoman towns with their eastern charm and Albanian populations whose contribution to national identity has to be expunged.

The sole goal of the Kamengrad project in Višegrad is the symbolic purification of the old bridge, which in spite of Emir Kusturica’s efforts, remains incorrigibly Ottoman. In the town imagined by Kusturica, the bridge is simply a prop in a Serbian nationalist scenario. The humiliation of the Other, who needs to be shown that this is no place for him is also the goal of the priests in Herzegovina [the Croatian Catholic party in Bosnia] which has “decorated” Mostar with a forest of crosses and steeples designed to relativise the architectural presence of the city’s many minarets.

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