Macedonia’s ‘warrior’ monument infuriates Greece

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A statue of a 'warrior on horseback' resembling Alexander the Great, currently being erected in the centre of Macedonian capital Skopje, has sparked fury in Greece, which warned that Skopje was gambling with its EU membership aspirations with such provocations.

Macedonia, an impoverished EU candidate country, has reportedly spent several million euros on the statue of a Hellenic warrior resembling known images of Alexander the Great, a king of Macedon from the fourth century BC who built the largest empire in ancient history. Macedon was a small empire which under Alexander's reign extended its power to the central Greek city-states and even as far as the Himalayas.

Anticipating fury from Athens, the government in Skopje dropped plans to name the statue after Alexander the Great, the local press reported. Instead, the monument, which is still being assembled in a central Skopje square, is officially referred to as 'the warrior on horseback'.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent a Greek government spokesperson from labelling the artistic effort "risible" and directly accusing Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of "making provocations to avoid reality".

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Gregory Delavekouras said that under other conditions, his country would be "honoured by the decision of the government of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to spend nearly €10 million to honor Alexander the Great, placing a statue of the Greek army commander in a central square in Skopje".

"But the 'archaisation policy' that this action is part of is […] essentially based on the effort to usurp Greek history with a view to cultivating nationalism and conflict," he claimed.

Delavekouras also stressed that the statue project undermined bilateral relations and was hampering negotiations, led by the UN, to find a solution to the long-standing name dispute pitting Athens against Skopje (see 'Background').

Greece does not recognise Macedonia by its constitutional name, and so in international fora in which Greece participates, Macedonia is called 'the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'.

"While Greece is pursuing the achievement of a solution consistently and in a constructive spirit, Mr. Gruevski is making provocations to avoid reality, undercutting his fellow citizens' European future. He needs to get back to reality right now and work sincerely and seriously towards achieving a solution. Otherwise, he will bear responsibility for his country's back-sliding," Delavekouras warned.

The Greek official added that Athens would inform its partners and allies, as well as international organisations, of this provocative action. He warned that consequences should be expected with regard to "FYROM's Euroatlantic perspective".

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, the European Commission provided the following written statement:

''Following the election, Prime Minister Gruevski stated his commitment to pursue Euro-Atlantic integration and to resolve the name issue. All main political parties consider this issue their priority as well. Therefore we expect the prime minister to provide leadership and focus energies of the country on finding a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution together with Greece.

"We noted Greece has perceived the placement of this statue, in the current context, as a provocation. As the Commission has consistently held, in order to create a climate which is conducive to a resolution, actions which can be perceived as provocative should be avoided.''

Skopje daily Dnevnik cites Sashko Todorkovski, an expert on international affairs, as doubting that there is any other place on earth where a monument to Alexander the Great has been built that the Greek authorities have complained about.

As no record of such complaints exist, Todorkovski concludes that Macedonia is being discriminated against.

"It appears that everyone can build a monument to Alexander except us," the expert is quoted as saying.

 Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the infamous 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest (see EURACTIV'sLinksDossier on 'EU-Macedonia relations').

Greece is pressing Macedonia to change its name because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. In addition, Athens considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its 19th and early 20th Century struggle against Ottoman domination. 

Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the name dispute has led to an impasse in the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.

According to diplomatic sources, a name with a geographic connotation – defining Macedonia more as a region than a country – would be acceptable to Greece.

Greece insists that the new geographic name should be used in "relations with everyone," rejecting Skopje’s suggestion that the name Macedonia could be kept "for internal use".

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