Macedonia: Abstract Expressionism is Back

Abstract expressionism is no longer cutting-edge art in most places, but in one country it is enjoying a massive popular revival: Macedonia. The artists are at work day and night in the capital, Skopje, decorating public buildings and statues with splatters of every colour in the rainbow in a style clearly inspired by Jackson Pollock.

The Macedonian artists can’t get as close to their work as Pollock (who put his canvases on the floor and dripped or splattered paint on them), because they are separated from their art-works by lines of grim-faced policemen. But they have solved that problem by using big sling-shots to lob paint-filled balloons over the cops’ heads onto the statues and buildings.

It is a non-violent protest movement, of course, but a very clever one, because the statues and buildings in question richly deserve to be defaced. They were all put up on the orders of Nikola Gruevski, the strongman who ruled the country for the past decade, in order to glorify Macedonia’s past (in the official version) or his own rule (in the popular view).

The 600-million-euro building spree included Porta Macedonia (a scaled-down Arc de Triomphe), a low-rent copy of the White House, and a plethora of faux-baroque office buildings and multi-storey parking garages. Not to mention more than a hundred new statues including a 22-metre-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great atop a white marble fountain.

All those ridiculous expanses of white marble have now fallen victim to Macedonia’s “Colourful Revolution”, and the regime is starting to crack under the pressure, which is not just coming from the streets. The European Union, which let Macedonia become a candidate for membership eleven years ago, is also turning the screws.

Macedonia, a land-locked, resource-poor country of only 2 million people, is the southernmost of the seven states that came out of former Yugoslavia. As elsewhere in post-Communist Eastern Europe, the European Union encouraged democracy and the rule of law in Macedonia by holding out the prospect of eventual EU membership, and for a while it seemed to be working. Then came Nikola Gruevski.

He leads a hyper-nationalist party that is named after the old “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation” (VMRO), which waged a guerilla and terrorist war against the Ottoman empire more than a century ago. Many of its founders had been anti-Communist nationalists in the old days, but they shared the Communist political style, which held that the point of politics was to take and keep power by any means necessary.

So the VMRO’s election victory ten years ago was, in a sense, like the Communists coming back into power under a different brand name, but with the same old habits. They feathered their nests; they took control of the media, the police and the judiciary; they even built a lavish new Party headquarters and furnished it with Soviet-style “Socialist Realist” paintings of themselves.

They also rigged the 2012 elections, and the EU made it plain that Macedonia’s membership application would stall if this sort of thing went on. But they didn’t care; they were in power. And they would still be all right if they hadn’t fallen back into the old Commie habit of tapping everybody’s phones – including their own.

It was the Nixon tapes all over again, on the grandest scale imaginable. The VMRO (its full name is VMRO-DPMNE, but never mind) was tapping the phones of 20,000 people. Most were opposition politicians, journalists, even bishops, but it was also recording the calls of its own cabinet ministers, even Prime Minister Gruevski himself. (These people don’t trust one another much.)

Then, about three years ago, somebody leaked the tapes to the opposition. (Surprise!) The tapes revealed senior VMRO officials discussing various corrupt deals, ballot-box stuffing, even the cover-up of a murder. Gruevski claimed that the tapes had been fabricated by an unnamed foreign intelligence agency, but the EU insisted that the crimes be investigated or else Macedonia’s membership application would be toast.

Last summer Gruevski agreed to set up a Special Prosecution office to investigate the crimes, to resign himself, and to create an interim multi-party government to organise new elections. But by late last winter most senior VMRO officials and cabinet members were facing serious charges, so he pulled the plug.

In early April Gruevski got President Gjorge Ivanov, also a VMRO member, to issue pardons for 56 senior politicians who were implicated in the scandal (including Gruevski himself, who was facing five charges). At that point the street protests began, and have continued ever since.

On 6 June President Ivanov, under huge pressure from the EU, revoked all of the pardons. Negotiations continue on cleaning up the voters’ list, restoring media freedoms and scheduling a new election, but one thing is already clear. Without the prospect of EU membership, Macedonia (and some other Balkan countries too) would simply have wound up as nasty little dictatorships.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“The 600…fountain”; and “Last…plug”)