Meta.mk: Russia donates monuments throughout Skopje and determines what inscriptions they will carry
“Eternal glory to the heroic fighters from the anti-Hitler’s coalition who defeated Nazism and freed the European nations!” This sentence has been inscribed on the monument behind the Universal Hall in the center of Skopje, which was officially opened on the 9th of May 2020 by the Russian Ambassador to North Macedonia, Sergey Bazdnikin and the former Mayor of Centar Municipality, Sasha Bogdanovikj.
As was announced by the local authorities at the time, the monument was built to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. The assets for the monument were provided by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in North Macedonia, while the Ambassador Bazdnikin himself during the opening two years ago, said that the monument was built as a prototype i.e. the inspiration for it was the monument of the Soviet soldiers in the Russian city of Rzhev, where around 400.000 soldiers and officers got killed.
“The monument we are opening today is special and is the first of its kind. It represents a confirmation of the unity of the nations of the anti-Hitler coalition, which freed Europe from the Nazis and their allies,” said the Russian Ambassador Bazdnikin on the 9th of May 2020, echoing the words imprinted on the monument.
It’s a historical fact that on the 9th of May 1945 a dark chapter in the world’s history ended, when in Berlin, the German forces handed over a signed capitulation to the Soviet marshal Zhukov and the British marshal Tedder. Still, the totalitarian pro-Soviet regimes that were installed after the end of WWII throughout Eastern Europe and the suffering of a large number of people by their hands have raised the following issue: whether the European nations were freed on this day or the Soviet occupation of the countries from the Eastern and Central Europe has continued after this day? Also, the question is whether, until today, the historical facts about WWII are being modified and re-contextualized for someone’s propaganda needs?
Meta.mk sent several questions to Centar Municipality and Karposh Municipality, onto which territories the monuments donated by the Russian Embassy in Skopje were erected, asking for an explanation of the complete procedure for the erection of these monuments.
Regarding the monument in the remembrance of the 9th of May 1945, we asked the municipality of Centar whether any Macedonian historians were consulted during its making, experts from the Institute of National History in Skopje or associations of historians in the country.
“According to the available information, Centar Municipality hasn’t consulted any historian in regard to the erection of this monument,” was the short answer that Meta.mk received from the municipality’s administration.
Centar Municipality explains that the inscription on the monument was penned by the Russian Embassy in Skopje. The plan and the necessary documentation for its erection in the central area were also provided by the Russian Embassy and as Centar Municipality states, the money for the monument was provided by the Embassy of the Russian Federation and not a single denar from the municipal budget had been spent on it.
We received a similar answer from Karposh Municipality regarding the monument of the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, which was opened officially in April 2015 in Kapishtec. The event was attended by the former Russian Ambassador in this country Oleg Shcherbak and was accompanied by the City of Skopje’s Mayor Koce Trajanovski and the Mayor of Karposh Stevcho Jakimovski.
Karposh Municipality stated for Meta.mk that the monument of Yuri Gagarin was a donation of the Russian Federation to mark the Day of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Apart from receiving the donation, Karposh Municipality didn’t have any financial expenditures for it, apart from the obligation to maintain the monument.
We didn’t receive an answer to our question sent to Karposh Municipality whether any historian, expert from the Institute of National History in Skopje or a member of the historical societies were consulted concerning this monument.
“Yuri Gagarin is a symbol of courage and the victory as well as of the wish to discover new frontiers. Gagarin is a man who opened a new chapter in the world history, in the development of science and humanity in general,” was the brief explanation that Karposh Municipality sent to Meta.mk
However, Karposh Municipality still marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. On the 12th of April this year, a three-member delegation has marked the 61st anniversary of Gagarin’s flight and has laid flowers at the monument, together with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Bazdnikin,, the Chinese Ambassador Dzang Zuo, the Bosnian Ambassador Dragan Jakjimovikj, but also a representative of the Serbian Embassy in Skopje, as well as representatives of various political parties and groups of citizens from the country. The event was attended by Russia’s consuls in Bitola and Ohrid, Sergey Samsonenko and Velimir Stojkovski, the leader of the Democratic Party of the Serbs in Macedonia, Ivan Stoiljkovikj and the Executive Director of the Macedonian-Russian economic chamber Dejan Beshliev.
Russian-themed children playground with a name board for a Ukrainian city
The last case when the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Skopje “made a donation” in the central municipalities in Skopje, was last year when in October a Russian-themed children playground was put into use behind the Universal Hall. The recreational facilities are encircled by a fence inscribed with names of Russian cities, but there is also an inscription for the name of the Ukrainian city Sevastopol, from the annexed Crimea Peninsula.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Skopje issued a reaction about this playground, financed jointly by the Russian Embassy in Skopje and the Centar Municipality. In the aftermath of the diplomatic scandal, the inscription with the name Sevastopol mysteriously disappeared. The municipality of Centar explained that it didn’t know who removed the board from the location while toward the end of last year, the Ukrainian Embassy explained that they reacted to the Macedonian authorities about the playground.
“The Ukrainian Ambassador in Macedonia, Ms Natalia Zadorozhniuk, had several meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when she expressed her view of the inadmissible participation by official representatives in North Macedonia, especially, the leadership of the Centar Municipality, in the effort by the Russian side to legalize the status of the temporarily occupied territories of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as a special subject of the Russian Federation,” said the Ukrainian Embassy for Meta.mk toward the end of 2021 regarding the inscription.
Memorial monument or a memorial place?
Although they failed to consult expert historians and the scientific and the high education institutions in the country, thereby allowing for the possible incursion of propaganda at the monuments by those that financed them, both the municipalities of Centar and Karposh stated that they have met the legal procedures required for the erection of the Russian memorials in Skopje.
The authorities in the municipality of Centar explained to Meta.mk that they have met the legal requirements when it comes to the placement of the memorial. On the 4th of May 2020, the Centar Municipality’s Council held its 45th session, when a decision was made to build a Russian memorial to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the victory over fascism. Only several days later, this memorial, which was already made, was officially inaugurated – on the 9th of May 2020.
Karposh Municipality also stated for Meta.mk that the placement of Yuri Gagarin’s memorial has passed the due procedures, according to the Law on memorial monuments and memorials in the country.
“On the 24th of November 2014, the Council of Karposh Municipality made a decision to place a monument at the location where it is today,” said the municipality of Karposh, describing the step that preceded its official opening in April 2015.
Unlike Centar Municipality, Karposh Municipality has left several months between reaching the decision and the erection of the monument.
Naturally, one question comes to mind regarding the Russian donations in Skopje – are the memorial monuments or memorials? In the Law on memorial monuments and memorials that were published at the Ministry of Culture’s website and at the Agency for administration website, there is a distinction in the descriptions of the two types, but much space for free interpretation is left, as well.
In Article 3 of the Law, it is stressed that memorial monuments are single or groups of objects and monumental works from architecture, sculpturing, painting and applied art with historical and artistic content and values for certain events and personalities that are of exceptional significance for the Republic of North Macedonia. They are of significance for the development of its statehood, and its state-legal continuity and should be naturally intertwined with the country’s historical development.
According to this definition, a memorial monument can be built with a decision by the Parliament of the Republic of North Macedonia and not by the municipalities.
In Articles 4 and 5 of the Law, there is an explanation that the following items can serve as memorials: sculptures, fountains, boards, water wells, busts and other artistic and architectural works and creations that are used to mark events and persons of exceptional significance for this country or have a local significance. For these, a decision for their erection is granted by the municipalities or the City of Skopje. This law was amended in 2008 and 2015, during the period of the so-called “Skopje 2014” project and the sections that were amended referred to the articles about the building of memorial monuments. They were amended by the former authorities led by VMRO-DPMNE.
BIRN several years ago published Centar Municipality’s decision to build the monument of Alexander the Great at the Macedonia Square in Skopje, for which instead of the parliament, the procedure for its building was implemented by the municipality. Professor Miroslav Grchev of the Faculty of Architecture wrote several years ago that the monument of Aleksandar Makedonski was “smuggled in” as a municipal memorial of a local importance, which basically means that the constitutional order and the legal state were suspended by bypassing the national Parliament.
But even the current government led by SDSM hasn’t made any amendments of the Law on memorial monuments and memorials to this day to create a clear distinction between the two terms and to tighten the procedure for their building and in doing so to avoid the spread of foreign propaganda through the monuments.
As a result of the above-listed amendments and ambiguities, we have witnessed new monuments that appeared everywhere throughout the country, which could contribute to reshaping the historical facts for the benefit of someone’s propaganda. The content of these memorials hasn’t even passed the various state and expert filters that should in turn polish what should appear as a final work in the public spaces.