Macedonia, Kazakhstan: Triumphal Arches to Celebrate 20 Years of Independence

The leaders of two former socialist countries have chosen the same architectural devices – triumphal arches – to mark the two decades of their states’ divorce from the larger unions. Kazakhstan celebrated 20 years of independence from the USSR, and Macedonia – from the SFRY.

On December 16, 2011, while the government security forces were breaking down the Zhanaozen strike by shooting the protesting miners, the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev opened the Triumphal Arch “Mangilik El” (“Eternal Earth”) in Astana, as part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence. As stated on the YouTube channel of Prime Minister Karim Massimov:

The Triumphal Arch that was constructed on the initiative of the President became another symbol of Kazakhstan's independence.

On January 6, 2012, the Prime Minister of Macedonia Nikola Gruevski opened the “Porta Macedonia” in Skopje (“porta”=”gate” in Latin and Macedonian). This triumphal arch was scheduled for unveiling on September 8, 2011, the actual 20th anniversary of Macedonia's independence, but construction delays had affected the timing. Nevertheless, the unfinished arch was used in the grandiose celebration (1, 2, 3, 4), which was then repeatedly shown on state TV, and at the welcoming ceremony for the national basketball team returning from the European Basketball Championship.

Porta Makedonija. Photo by Darko Nikolovski, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Porta Makedonija. Photo by Darko Nikolovski, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

During his 30-minute speech [mk], the Macedonian PM gave a much-commented-on statement [mk] that he personally had been the instigator and the chief backer of the Skopje 2014 project, which would leave an unavoidable mark in history.

He first thanked [mk] all the opponents of this “good, high-quality, useful project which has no downsides” – the opposition, those who disagree with him, the NGO sector:

…who with great passion and devotion strive to blacken this project, hoping that this would also negatively reflect on me and my collaborators, the current administration. This is a way for the artists to gain greater glory and escape anonymity after their deaths…

I do not say this cynically or ironically, if someone understands me that way. The greater the interest about a piece, in the sense of more critique and humiliation, in fact increases the motivation and the concentration of quality of that work…

Nikola Gelevski, an independent publisher and founder of the critical-thinking portal Okno, commented [mk] that the “discrete admission that he is the author of the most charlatan project in the history of Macedonia (according to me) was the only positive thing in the typically boring (and extremely) demagogic speech” by the PM.

Analyzing the speech, Gelevski noted:

  • “The one who abuses art and architecture for political goals, blames others for politicization!”
  • “Did we elect Gruevski to run the Government as a politician, or as an artist, a [demiurge], a prophet, and a messiah?!”
  • “One day–which will will come relatively soon–everybody will see that ‘Skopje 2014′ is but a great robbery of people's money.”
  • “All older monuments in the country are devastated in most humiliating ways, while whole squads of guards from private security agencies hired with public money “defend” the new monuments by Gruevski's regime.”

The triumphal arch was the most controversial element of the Skopje 2014 project. Many of its critics noted that it was superfluous and obsolete. The arch in Astana stands 20 meters tall, symbolizing the 20 years of independence. The Skopje arch is 21 meters tall, and no explanation has been provided in this regard.

The price of the Kazakh arch was not publicly disclosed in the news reports, while the Macedonian counterpart cost EUR 4.4 million. The everyday uses of the structure include selling souvenirs and providing space for weddings (or shooting ‘fancy’ wedding photographs) on the observation platform.

Blogger Sead93 noted [mk]:

A few days ago the “Porta Macedonia” was officially opened in Skopje. After hundreds of reruns of the broadcast, this is not exactly news, but there's still something to add:

With all due respect to the one who named it Porta Macedonia, but this time I think they should have listened to the people, who use the name “The Triumphal Arch,” which is no accident. This is not just about the plain visual similarity with some-other-arches-from-some-other-countries and cities, but about the need to articulate triumphalism present in our daily lives. The nation needs an imprint, a space for canonizing or standardizing this triumphalism.

Namely, besides serving as an arch for triumphal marches of athletes, artists, scientists, laureates and other worthy citizens, the arch would be ideal for triumphal marching of our [Gastarbeiter] returning to visit the homeland. They could use it to parade their fancy cars (regardless of whether they own them or are just renting them to show off during vacation) and all their glitter. Imagine the view, and the astonishment, the sighs, the inspiration you would get from the successful emigrants. The prospective brides could easily eye a groom, and vice versa. This could be our Fashion Channel runway… Practical and profitable for all…

The linguistic assertion was proved by Zoriv, in his post [mk] praising the arch:

…the name does not correspond to the architectural work, but that is least important. The important thing is that the city of Skopje has acquired a structure that provides it with a new face and symbolism as the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Debates about its aesthetics will rage among the architects… As a citizen of Skopje… I feel joy while looking at it, with a remark and question, was the middle of economic crisis the right time to build this – time will tell.

Responding to the implications stemming from the connection between Kazakhstan and Macedonia, Zoriv listed a number of other arches around the world, trying to show that building such monuments is quite normal: the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Siegestor in Munich, the Wellington Arch in London, Narva in St. Petersburg, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. He did not omit the tallest of them all, too – the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.

On Facebook, members of the ruling party tried to prove that raising triumphal arches was not an anachronistic practice related to despotic regimes with imperial ambitions, by sharing a photo of the Millennium Gate arch built in 2008 in the democratic USA, disregarding the fact that that “kitschy McMonument that bespeaks a cultural inferiority complex for all the world to see” (comment by an architecture forum user quoted by the LA Times) was funded through private donations, not with public money.

Even when questions of possible corruption and kickbacks by the developers are not taken into account, the issue of whether the money invested in Skopje 2014, and especially the arch, is well spent keeps popping up as the majority of the Macedonian population sinks deeper into poverty, and there's less money in the state budget for basic infrastructure services.

For instance, Twitter user Banekoma posted this collage of contrasting photos of the arch and the state of the main children's hospital, part of the main clinic, part of the dilapidated public health system.


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