1. bookTom 15 (2021): Zeszyt 1 (July 2021)
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The City of Solidarity's Diverse Legacies: A Framework for Interpreting the Local Memory of the 1963 Skopje Earthquake and the Post-earthquake Urban Reconstruction

Data publikacji: 28 Jul 2021
Tom & Zeszyt: Tom 15 (2021) - Zeszyt 1 (July 2021)
Zakres stron: 30 - 51
Informacje o czasopiśmie
License
Format
Czasopismo
eISSN
2570-5857
Pierwsze wydanie
16 Apr 2017
Częstotliwość wydawania
2 razy w roku
Języki
Angielski
Introduction and Research Design

One can easily say that the reinstallation of a sign on the Old Central Railway Station in Skopje bearing a message of condolence and solidarity by Yugoslavia's president-for-life Josip Broz Tito, an event titled “Solidarnosta se vrakja doma” [The solidarity returns home], was the most notable episode of the 55th anniversary of the calamitous 1963 Skopje earthquake.

All the translations in the text are mine, unless otherwise indicated. The transliteration from Macedonian and Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian to Latin alphabet is based on the standard ISO 9 system.

The installation reads: “Skopje was struck by an unseen catastrophe, but we will rebuild it anew with the help of our entire community, so it will become our pride and a symbol of brotherhood and unity, of Yugoslav and world solidarity.” Tito gave this message on July 27, 1963, just a day after the tragic event. Both this installation and the frozen clock of Skopje's pre-1963 Central Railway Station, forever stopped at 5:17 a.m., the starting time of the seismic activities, were and still are considered to be the most prominent reminders of the earthquake.

The announcement, made public during a press conference organized on July 27, 1963, drew on an earlier telegram written by the then-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Sithu U Thant and addressed to Tito, stressing that the “United Nations stands ready to offer every assistance within its resources to alleviate distress caused by the calamity.” More in Tolic, “Ernest Weissmann’s World City,” 172.

The message, formerly inscribed in the façade of the Old Central Railway Station that nowadays serves as part of the Museum of the City of Skopje, was removed in 1999 in the wake of the first governmental change in the state's democratic history, as part of a major refurbishing of the station, an act many speculated to be motivated by “ideological reasons.”

Vasilevska, “So izmenet font.” See also Marusic, “Macedonian Capital Restores.”

The removal provoked massive public reactions in the following years, articulated best by the social media group “Tito's message should be returned,” which called for a renewal of the original message by loading the public discourse with personal and familial memories of the catastrophic event.

The vignette presented above is just a small portion of the sociopolitical tensions over the legacies of the 1963 Skopje earthquake in today's North Macedonia.

The state name, as well as the subsequent ethnic and national adjectives, is brought in accordance with the 2018 Greco-Macedonian Agreement. The author uses the former constitutional name of Republic of Macedonia when referring to the time-period from 1991 to the official ratification of the Agreement in February 2019, as well as the erstwhile state-name Socialist Republic of Macedonia for the time period of 1963–91, according to the official statement of the North Macedonia’s and the Greek governments on the nonretroactive function of the new state-name.

On the early morning of June 26, 1963, an earthquake struck the Macedonian capital of Skopje, destroying more than two-thirds of the urban fabric and killing 1,070 locals. The politically nonaligned Yugoslav government immediately issued a call for help for its third-largest city and the erstwhile southernmost federal capital. The call was initially picked up by the Yugoslav republics, who were followed by more than 80 states across the globe and many international organizations, all providing help to Skopje and Skopjans in the aftermath of the catastrophe – an episode of human solidarity many contemporaries depicted as unprecedented. The emerging role of the United Nations (UN) as a systemizing agent of post-earthquake aid and donations to Skopje was crucial to the city's fate; the UN endorsed the Yugoslav political decision to rebuild the city just days after the earthquake and, in October 1963, unanimously passed a resolution to support the Yugoslav government in the post-earthquake reconstruction of Skopje through the UN's Special Fund.

An extensive account of the UN’s involvement in post-1963 Skopje can be found in the book Skopje Resurgent: The Story of a United Nations Special Fund Town Planning Project, a 400-page study published in 1970, authored by Derek Senior, a British freelance expert on town planning and a former member of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England, and the so-called Yellow books, a set of 22 reports of the UN-coordinated activities in Skopje published in Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and English in the mid and late 1960s. More on the “Yellow books” in Lozanovska and Martek, “Skopje Resurgent.”

The urban reconstruction was led by a team of prominent international architects and urban planners and lasted until the early 1980s. The Yugoslav and Macedonian authorities decided to reimagine the Macedonian capital as a “City of solidarity,” a symbol of cross-bloc cooperation, a strategic move “made necessary by the Cold War context.”

Tolic, “The Skopje Urban Plan,” 40.

They also deemed Skopje an “Open City,” one open to domestic and intra-federal migrations, as “a symbol of the brotherhood and unity of our [Yugoslav] peoples and international solidarity.”

City of Skopje Archive (CSA), Skopje: Dnevni Jugoslovenski Operativno-Informativni Bilten o Obnovi i Izgradnju, Sociološki aspekti novog generalnog urbanističkog plana Skopja, 29 May 1964, 1–6.

This paper aims to provide an overview of commemorative activities occurring in Skopje from 1964 to 2020 related to the 1963 Skopje earthquake. Drawing upon the “sociology of events” and critical disaster studies literature, I view natural disasters as “impact events” that shatter not only the material but also the symbolic worlds we inhabit.

For the “impact event” concept, see Fuchs, “After the Dresden Bombing.” For the “sociology of events,” see Wagner-Pacifici, What Is an Event? and Berezin, “Events as Templates of Possibility,” For an overview of emerging cultural memory and disaster literature, see Ullberg, “Forgetting Flooding” and Drost, “Collapse Makes Memory.”

As such, their modality is constantly being renegotiated, and the commemorative ceremonies serve as the most common platforms for these discursive negotiations. In a similar vein, cultural memory literature views commemorative events as “social and political” by definition, while the agency of change is recently being discussed in light of the sociological actor-centered approach through concepts such as “memory actors,” “memory entrepreneurs,” and “memory agents.”

For an overview of the actor-centered approach in memory studies, see Gensburger, “National Policy, Global Memory,” and Kubik and Bernhard, “A Theory of the Politics of Memory.”

I will also discuss the various commemorative activities as means of solidifying a “commemorative narrative” which, in the words of Eviatar Zerubavel, is the “broad storyline” that integrates the memory practices in a given temporal scope.

See Zerubavel, “Time Maps” and “Calendars and History.”

Therefore, I aim to reconstruct both the commemorative events and commemorative narratives of the 1963 Skopje earthquake as well as its major memory agents and agencies by triangulating archival materials, media and institutional discourses, and secondary literature. I identify and discuss three commemorative phases, 1963–81, 1981–2000, and 2001–20, and I structure the argument on the “multidirectionality” of the notion of solidarity in the public domain.

Multidirectionality of memory is understood in line with Michael Rothberg’s take on the Holocaust memory in the age of decolonization, as the “interaction of different historical memories” in the “malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being though their dialogical interactions with others.” More in Rothberg, “Multidirectional Memory.”

Commemorating the 1963 Skopje Earthquake and the Post-Earthquake Urban Reconstruction
Envisioning Solidarity (1963–1981)

Parallel to the preparations for the urban reconstruction project, the Yugoslav authorities immediately endorsed the international support the city of Skopje received after the earthquake. On a central level, it was certainly Tito who most exploited “the political power of a symbol he himself had created that guaranteed Skopje a future.”

Tolic, “Ernest Weissmann’s World City.”

The main platforms for communicating the Yugoslav narrative of post-earthquake Skopje as a symbol of international solidarity included the already established networks of the Nonaligned Movement (of which Yugoslavia was a founding member), the UN (of which, again, Yugoslavia was a founding member and an original signatory of the UN Charter at the UN Conference on International Organizations), and the reinvented relations with the Eastern Bloc in the wake of Stalin's death.

More in Spaskovska, “Constructing the ‘City of International Solidarity.’” See also Mirchevska and Jancheva, “Pomoshch’ Sovetskogo Soiuza.”

Ernest Weissmann, an architect of Croat origins and UN officer on the Economic and Social Council, was especially significant in these regards. Weismann was one of the key figures entrusted by both the Yugoslav government and the UN to steer the Skopje reconstruction process. Like the UN, he pushed for reestablishing Skopje as an epitome of a city that promotes peace, understanding, and collaboration in the midst of the Cold War. All of the above actors drew the critical context of this multileveled, cross-sectorial, and transnational endeavor.

According to Tolic, Weissmann, an “unconditional” internationalist, mediated the process where “planning and politics were to act synergistically in order to rebuild the destroyed Macedonian capital, making it a symbol of international cooperation; in other words, a world city.” More in Tolic, “Ernest Weissmann’s World City,” 196.

In turn, the immediate post-earthquake support to Skopje became a reference point for humanitarian interventions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For a comparative take, see Capotescu, “Migrants into Humanitarians.”

As major memory agents in the local constellation, the local Skopje authorities were initially focused on promoting intra-Yugoslav solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquake; in late June, for instance, the Skopje City Council praised an initiative establishing a monument to the city's “brotherhood and unity.”

CSA, Skopje: Dnevni jugoslovenski operativno-informativni bilten o obnovi i izgradnju, Održana je prva sednica odbora za proslavu 20-godišnjice oslobodjenja Skopja, 28 June 1964, 2–4.

However, daily bulletins reporting on urban reconstruction made it obvious prior to the first anniversary of July 26, 1964, that this primarily domestic-oriented slogan insufficiently depicted international support to the city. The set of activities that took place on July 26, 1964, to a large extent shaped the coordinates of annual earthquake commemorations for the upcoming two decades: a discursive linkage between commemorating the deceased and praising post-earthquake support to the city. The first aspect was related to the physical site of the Butel Cemetery in Skopje. In mid-July 1964, the city council had already issued a draft invoice to the Skopje reconstruction special fund for the arrangement of the graves of the deceased.

CSA, Skopje: Dnevni jugoslovenski operativno-informativni bilten o obnovi i izgradnju, Potrebna sredstva za uredjenje groblja poginulih od zemljotresa u Skopju, 16 June 1964, 5.

A commemorative assembly of the Skopje City Council passed a special resolution on July 26, 1964, that elevated the site to a higher level of institutional protection by listing the Alley of the Victims of the Skopje Earthquake as a Spomen groblje [memorial cemetery].

CSA, Skopje: Dnevni jugoslovenski operativno-informativni bilten o obnovi i izgradnju, Sa svečene sednice gradskog sobranja Grada Skopja, 28 July 1964, 2–4.

The council held several meetings dedicated to the necropolis from June to December 1964, while its definite scenery was finalized in 1965 with the installation of Georgi Gruin's monument “26 July,” a massive béton brut edifice typical of the Yugoslav memorial architecture and sculpture of the day, at the memorial site.

For an overview of the Yugoslav memorial architecture of the day, see Horvatinčić, “Memorial Architecture.”

The other set of commemorative activities held in July 1964 was designed to honor the international presence in the city in the tragedy's wake. In the words of Blagoj Popov, the then-equivalent of a Skopje city mayor, issued on the occasion of the international premiere of Veljko Bulajić's Skoplje ’63 at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival: “Skopje's earthquake was not just a mere tragedy, [but] something much more than that.”

CSA, Skopje: Dnevni jugoslovenski operativno-informativni bilten o obnovi i izgradnju, Pres-konferencija u gradskom sobranju, 14 May 1964, 2. See, as well, Stanoevski, “Festivalot.”

This reasoning would translate into an official endorsement of the role of Tito, the UN's General Secretary, and the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, all the groups and individuals from abroad” in Skopje's reconstruction at the commemorative assembly on July 26, 1964. Thus as of 1964, the annual commemoration of the 1963 earthquake evolved into a platform for awarding the various stakeholders active in the urban reconstruction and promoting the benchmarks of the reconstruction project. At the 1965 commemoration, for instance, a UN-organized international jury announced the winners of the design contest for Skopje's central area, while the city council recognized approximately 150 organizations from all around the globe. This agenda would last up until the end of this commemorative period: major commemorative event in 1978 was the inauguration of the Treska Lake Complex in Skopje; in 1980, the inauguration of the new building of the Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Engineering Seismology; and in 1981, the new object of Skopje's Transportation Center.

Halfway through the completion of the urban reconstruction project, the Yugoslav authorities established July 26 as a Dan solidarnosti [solidarity day], an initiative publicized in the early 1970s and made official in October 1973, thus further exploiting the symbolic capital of the solidarity trope to reinvent the state's disaster management politics. Dwelling on the “positive example of Skopje” and the 1969 Banja Luka earthquake, the legal project envisioned a special Fond solidarnosti [Solidarity Fund] that would account for up to 0.2% of the annual state budget with the single aim of supporting the post-natural-disaster recovery of the Yugoslav regions. The city of Skopje backed the initiative by acting as its informal capital and a “symbol of the strongly manifested solidarity.”

More in Arsov, “Glasam za solidarnosta.”

The legal project also envisioned a so-called Solidarity Week with a fixed annual starting date of July 26 as a federal fundraising platform for auctioning solidarity-related memorabilia, such as special postage stamps. Therefore, as of 1973, the Skopje-based commemorations of the 1963 earthquake have often been portrayed as segments of the federal Solidarity Week in the Macedonian media. In 1976, the July 26 commemorations took place just days after disastrous flooding in the neighboring town of Kumanovo and an earthquake in Tolomin, Slovenia, two events that set the commemorative tone back in Skopje by increasing emphasis on the Yugoslav solidarity. In a similar vein, the catastrophic 1979 earthquake in Montenegro shifted the commemorative focus in Skopje from the 1963 tragedy to the post-earthquake solidarity in Skopje and the Yugoslav solidarity with Montenegrins.

A major illustration of the celebratory and “prospectivist” tones in the commemorations of the 1963 Skopje earthquake during the first two post-earthquake decades is the festival titled Sredbi na solidarnosta [Solidarity meetings], or SM.

I use the notion of prospectivism and prospectives in memory studies in line with Kubik and Bernhard, who define the “mnemonic prospectives” as those agents “whose actions are justified not by anchoring them in the past, but by prospects of a ‘better’ future.” More in Kubik and Bernhard, “A Theory of the Politics of Memory,” 15.

On May 18, 1964, a Skopje City Council decree officially established the SM as an annual, week-long festival of noncompetitive cultural and sportive events to take place in Skopje from July 26 to August 2. The festival's end date was chosen on purpose by the organizational committee because August 2 was also the date of the Orthodox Christian holiday honoring St. Elijah, as well as the most prominent national holiday in post-war Macedonia: Republic Day, or Ilinden.

Elsewhere I argued that the 1960s and the 1970s were also focal in the construction of the commemorative ritualogy of Ilinden in post-war Macedonia. See Trajanovski, “The Three Memory Regimes.”

Each SM was organized by a special institutional body, the Organizational Committee of SM, which counted 22 board members overseeing the work of nine subcommittees.

The SM importance within the local governance can be also illustrated with the first draft of the President of the SM Board, Strate Arsovski, a well-established sportive worker, member of the first post-war Union of the Sport Federations of Macedonia (1945) and a director of the erstwhile Institute of sport (1954–1957); and its Vice-President, Emanuel Mane Čučkov, a prominent Macedonian post-war politician, Minister for Macedonian in the Provisional Government of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia and member of the first Macedonian Parliament. More in “Trieset godini fizička kultura.”

The Organizational Committee also published an annual, multilingual summary of the festival, which listed all events and participants and provided a brief history of the city of Skopje and reports from the President of the Board and the Organizational Committee. As per Skopje's City Council, the SM had a threefold goal: to perform (or “manifest anew”) international solidarity for the city of Skopje, to promote Yugoslav sports and culture, and, finally, to show that “even though the city was struck by a deadly elementary force, it aims and aspires to live and conduct its everyday activities throughout these difficult conditions.”

More in CSA, Skopje: Dnevni jugoslovenski operativno-informativni bilten o obnovi i izgradnju, Vesti, 28 July 1964.

Even though the organizers were not always able to provide suitable lodging because of Skopje's situation on the ground, the number of participants in the sportive and cultural events has yet to be matched even today: the first SM counted 1,509 participants in the sport segment alone, comprising 618 Yugoslavs, 147 locals, and 529 foreigners, as well as 32 media teams with over 215 members. The program was expanded the next year, not only to host a higher number of participants, but also to include three exhibitions and activities on “four major sites and several smaller ones.”

More in CSA, Skopje: Informativen bilten, Sostanok na organizacioniot komitet na “Sredbata na solidarnosta,” 31 May 1965, 7–9; CSA, Skopje: Informativen bilten, Pred održuvanjeto na “Sredbata na solidarnosta,” 5 July 1965, 15.

Revising Solidarity (1981–2000)

If the late 1960s and 1970s in Skopje were marked by rapid urban buildup, the 1980s and 1990s were marked by the official halt of the reconstruction project, the deterioration of the interethnic relations in the city and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Coming as a shock to the consumerist culture nurtured by the Yugoslav authorities, the late 1970s economic crisis resulted in inflation that rose to 75% per annum, while the living standards in Yugoslavia fell by 34% from 1979 to 1984.

See Jović, “Yugoslavia.”

The economic crisis also translated into termination of the state funding of Fond za obnova i izgradba na Skopje [Fund for Renewal and Reconstruction of Skopje], the major state-body overseeing the funding and responsible for Skopje's post-earthquake reconstruction, while the subsequent Operative Program ceased to exist in 1982. Moreover, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was one of the Yugoslav federal units that was hit hardest by the economic turn of events. The 1980s, in the words of Jančeva and Litovski, saw the “culmination of [the state's] economic backwardness,” with average salaries in Macedonia 30.6% lower than the Yugoslav average in 1986.

Jančeva and Litovski, “Macedonia and Macedonians in Yugoslavia.”

In parallel, interethnic tensions in Macedonia reached a boil as of the early 1980s. Slobodan Milošević's rise to power and the 1981 riots in Kosovo were followed by Albanian riots in Macedonia which, in turn, provoked harsh responses by the state authorities throughout the course of the 1980s: the closure of more than 25 high schools in predominantly Albanian-populated settlements in Macedonia, prohibition of the usage of Albanian names in public spaces or giving Albanian names to newborn children.

For an overview, see Brunnbauer, “Fertility, Families and Ethnic Conflict.”

The rationale behind these measures was the allegedly emerging “Albanian nationalism and irredentism” in the state.

Dimova, “Macedonian and Albanian Intellectuals.”

Notwithstanding, international solidarity as established in the first commemorative phase remained a dominant discursive frame for commemorating the 1963 Skopje earthquake after the reinstallation of Lazar Koliševski and his pro-centralization team in power in socialist Macedonia in the late 1970s and, especially, after Tito's death in 1981. However, the situation on the ground provided space for altering public narratives about the earthquake and post-earthquake reconstruction. The official inauguration of the Transportation Center is illustrative of the general tone that marked the commemorations of the 1980s. The media event of the day was attended by the “highest members” of the establishment and a relatively large crowd of, as depicted by the media, “thousands of people.”

Adžigogova, “Železnički čardak.”

The crowd was “impatiently” waiting for the arrival of the first-ever train at the new station, one of the “largest” and “most modern” in the region, from the city of Niš, Serbia, which showed up 30 minutes late.

Adžigogova, “Moderni i funkcionalni rešenija.”

The newspaper accounts also noted that the train operator was given a fresh bouquet of flowers and, in the margins, marked that the station was open to the public even though not completely finished; almost 3,000 of the 10,000 square meter total projected area of the station was yet to be completed, as were five out of the ten train platforms. One possible reason for this might have been the authorities’ awareness of the nearing end of the reconstruction program, which prompted them to rush to finalize capital undertakings designed in the post-earthquake years. The increased focus on the capital objects, in turn, shifted the agenda away from the “softer” events related to the earthquake; the SM, for instance, ceased to exist in its initial format after its ninth edition in 1973, even though it translated to a different set of festivals and activities, while instead the city lost interest in organizing large-scale international events and the hosting of the 20th Chess Olympiad in 1972, the IFC Canoe Slalom World Championship in 1975, and the 1981 World Wrestling Championship.

Several of those Skopje-based events are still ongoing: such as “Zlaten gong” – an annual boxing tournament, active as of 1969; “Zlatno slavejče” – the first Macedonian children’s music festival, active as of 1971; “Majski operski večeri” – an annual opera festival, active as of 1972; “Svetska galerija na karikaturi” – exhibiting the work of numerous international caricaturists as of 1972; “Skopsko kulturno leto” – a summer program of cultural events, active as of 1979; and “Skopje džez festival” – a renowned jazz festival, active as of 1981.

I identify two commemorative trajectories of the 1980s and 1990s: one molded around the progress made during the two decades post-earthquake, and the other consisting of various attempts to cast the same period in a different light. The first trajectory was predominantly promoted by the establishment and had Yugoslav solidarity and especially Tito as the agents most accountable for Skopje's post-earthquake breakthrough. The 1983 commemoration of the 1963 Skopje earthquake, its 20th anniversary, is particularly interesting in these regards: the major commemorative ceremony organized by the Skopje City Council took place a day before July 26, was attended by 840 domestic and foreign guests, and was principally reported to be a meeting wherein the delegates decided to rename the Youth Sports Center in Skopje as Park na solidarnosta [Park of Solidarity] and to select the members of Skopje's official delegation to Tito's grave in Belgrade.

More in “Sekjavanje na katastrofata.”

Furthermore, the Macedonian media outlets of the 1980s were particularly focused on providing qualitative overviews of the benchmarks achieved by the urban reconstruction: carefully counting not only the new edifices and urbanized neighborhoods, but also the kilometers of water supply, sewage, and postal and electrical networks—a discourse often accompanied by a visual narration of the new edifices juxtaposed with photographs from the earthquake's immediate aftermath.

The most significant alteration in the mid-1980s’ commemorative trajectory was the emergence of a public discourse that collocated pre-earthquake Skopje—its architectural and urban features, everyday life, and cultural history—to the end results of the post-earthquake reconstruction. This discourse made room for an alternative narration of the city's reconstruction, one that did not emphasize the major benchmarks of the post-earthquake buildout and thus avoid the predominantly celebratory commemorative tone in public and media discourse. This tendency gained even more traction after the revision of Skopje's general urban plan in 1985 and changes to the post-earthquake planning model. The research project on Skopje's “constructing legacies,” sponsored by the Skopje City Council in the 1980s, illustrates the involvement of state institutions. The project's authors were critical of the “modernist and functionalist” planning and called for a reconsideration of the “traditional city and the constructing legacies.”

Arsovski, “Urbanite formi.”

This discourse evolved over the next decade and was picked up by other formal and informal actors besides the state. Therefore, the Yugoslav dissolution and the Macedonian independence at the turn of the decade do not present a particular juncture in the commemorative domains of the 1963 Skopje earthquake. Moreover, the departure from the “brotherhood and unity” ideology further facilitated the process of re-narrating the history of post-earthquake solidarity in Skopje.

The 1993 commemoration of July 26, its 40th anniversary, best illustrates the two aforementioned trajectories. The daily newspaper Večer covered the event by presenting two complementary stories on the front page, featuring the authors of two recently published books on Skopje: Kole Jordanovski and Blagoja Ilievski-Marko. Both authors criticized various aspects of the post-earthquake urban planning policies in the city; Jordanovski, an architect himself and former director of Direkcija za obnova i izgradba na Skopje [Management of the renewal and reconstruction of Skopje], highlighted three “problematic” points of the urban reconstruction (the “uncontrolled mechanical influx” to Skopje; the failure to bridge the economic, social, and cultural gaps in the city; and the “hasty decisions” to demolish the capital objects in the city center). Ilievski-Marko weighted in that “he himself, as well as his peers” could not accept the new image of Skopje. On a separate note, the commemorative event with the highest attendance that year was the “Nezaborav na ‘63” [Never to be forgotten ‘63] festival, organized by the Red Cross of Macedonia and the radio station Kanal 2000. The event took place at the Treska Lake Complex, one of the urban reconstruction's last capital projects, and was attended by more than 1,000 citizens. The festival featured “a short demonstration of a water rescue operation and a swimming competition.” The event was also promoted as a token of solidarity in the midst of the Yugoslav wars, with the blood donation drive benefiting Bosnian-Herzegovinian refugees in the state.

Ivanova, “Grad na polovina pat.”

Besides at the 1993 event, however, there were no structured commemorative narratives in the 1990s regarding the earthquake and post-earthquake reconstruction. The scarce media references to the earthquake frequently exposed the ontological insecurity of the Macedonian citizens and their general disappointment with their immediate sociopolitical realities. Vladislav Karanfilski, a journalist and an author, argued that “since we live in irregularly difficult times,” the city of Skopje should be declared “a city of international solidarity, an open and peaceful city” to “further protect the city from eventual ground attacks and air raids.”

Karanfilski, “Simbol na solidarnosta.”

A brief account in a 1993 issue of the major newspaper Nova Makedonija listed several of the festivals that succeeded the SM before the conclusion: “the thread of solidarity, which connected all the participants, does not exist anymore. Simply—it got lost in the time.” The frequent media stories on the threat of another eventual earthquake in Skopje can be also read in this vein, as the tone of these stories was surprisingly pacifying and under-dramatized: one less trouble to worry about during the annual day of the “tragedy that should never repeat.”

Angelovska, “Da ne se povtori!”

Moreover, it is important to note that both Večer and Nova Makedonija, the two dominant newspapers, rarely featured the 1963 Skopje earthquake on their cover pages during the 1990s, a tendency that, in the course of the 1990s, appeared to be a prevailing one rather than a simple exception.

Finally, as of 1998 and the first-ever democratic change of government in Macedonia, the legacies of the 1963 Skopje earthquake became the subject of political contestations on a local level. The removal of Tito's statement described in this paper's introduction is more than illustrative in these regards. Prior to the removal of the words, the newly appointed, VMRO-DPMNE-backed director of the Museum (a position within the spoils system), Ǵorgji Čulakovski, removed a permanent exhibition dedicated to the participation of Skopje, Skopjans, and the Skopje region in the People's Liberation War (1941–45), the founding and state-building event of the Second Yugoslavia. Asked to comment on the purportedly illegal removal of the words, Čulakovski initially stressed that the rationale was “purely aesthetic.”

Ravanovska Tulbevska, “Simnata Titovata poraka.”

Notwithstanding, Čulakovski backpedaled twice in the coming years, stating in 2002 that Tito's account was “not as relevant” and that the words were placed “illegally.”

“Na gradot mu gi odzemaa najgolemite bukvi.”

The removal provoked a reaction from the erstwhile Mayor of Skopje, Risto Penov (in office 1996–2004), who stressed that he was received “numerous complaints by revolted citizens” over Čulakovski's “self-proclaimed” decision and that he would try to bring back the exhibition as they were “letters of solidarity, no matter who proclaimed them.”

Ravanovska Tulbevska, “Penov kje se obide da ja vrati porakata.”

Even though the removal's case lost momentum after 2002, political tension over the 1963 Skopje earthquake would escalate in the coming decades.

Revisiting Solidarity (2001–2020)

The building interethnic cleavages in post-Yugoslav Macedonia culminated in 2001, in a seven-month armed conflict between the Macedonian forces and the ethnic-Albanian radicals. The conflict thus set the tone of the commemorations of the 1963 earthquake in the early 2000s. The 2001 commemoration took place in the midst of the intensified efforts to reach a ceasefire under the banner of “Solidarity day,” while the 2002 commemoration included several commemorative activities that linked post-earthquake solidarity to post-conflict peacebuilding. It is important to mention that the morning ceremony of visiting the Butel Cemetery in Skopje remained a constant feature of the annual commemorations throughout the years, although the media did not always report on this event. The 2003 commemoration, however, neatly exposed the further development of the two commemorative narratives from the 1980s and 1990s into the 2000s. The Skopje City Council's main commemorative event was an awards ceremony at which eight locals received accolades for their “special engagement” in the post-earthquake reconstruction of the city: among them, former city mayors; heads of relevant institutions that helped coordinate the reconstruction, all of whom held office in the mid-1960s and throughout the 1970s; as well as some notable citizens of Skopje. At the awards ceremony, Penov praised the engagement of the awardees by stating that “what we are currently working in the city is just a drop in the ocean compared to what those people [the awardees] did.”

Lazoroski, “Progodni plaketi.”

Moreover, Dragoljub Stratev, the former mayor and one of the awardees, made another link between the post-earthquake and post-conflict atmospheres, claiming that “solidarity is what [Macedonians] need the most in these times.”

Stavrev, “I vo ovie vreminja.”

The second trajectory was molded around the reinterpretations of the nostalgic discourse for pre-1963 Skopje. This discourse was primarily directed at the urban planning activities in the 1980s (revising some of the post-earthquake urban planning decisions such as the city council's sponsored project). Yet in the early 2000s it was reinvented as a tool for approaching immediate urban issues, and again in the late 2000s and the early 2010s as a focal point of the political tension over the of the Skopje city center outlook. For example, the 2003 commemoration and the discourse about pre-1963 Skopje almost exclusively concerned the pressing issues of sanitation, air pollution, and uncontrolled construction activities. One typical visual media strategy of the day was juxtaposing photographs from pre-earthquake Skopje with ones featuring various illegal objects in the very same spots. In addition, the July 26, 2003, issue of Nova Makedonija featured three texts that relegitimized similar worldviews: a long, one-page recollection of the pre-1963 life of the Skopjan youth with a rather suggestive ending—“and then came July 26 and nothing ever was the same”

Kalajdžiski, “Te sakam, Skopje.”

—and an interview with the writer Lazar M. Drakul, who was sincere in his evaluation that “[e]ven though I live in a modern Skopje now, I no longer feel the spirit of the old Skopje.”

Tanevski, “Herojot na denot.”

Last, it was Penov himself who provided an additional layer to this nostalgic narrative in a lengthy interview on the occasion of the earthquake anniversary. In it, he claimed that the post-earthquake reconstruction was fast-paced and precise, yet, assessing that “it was a bad momentum [to be] hit by a catastrophe in a period when the modernist tendency was dominating the global architecture; when the old, practically, had no value and, maybe, the negligence over the old [Skopje] architecture was too harsh.”

Lazoroski and Grombanovski, “Trendot na modernistički objekti.”

The period from 2004 to 2007 was marked by a larger presence of personal and expert accounts of the earthquake and post-earthquake reconstruction legacies in the media. The various orientations towards these two formative events from the recent history of Skopje demonstrated that the two dominant commemorative narratives of the day—the one focused on the solidarity and the urban buildup, and the other based on the nostalgic discourse for pre-1963 Skopje—were more distant than they were at the commemorative events. Already in 2004, when asked if they had the chance to revive one pre-1963 urban activity, several randomly interviewed citizens would have chosen to “return” the “old Skopje korzo [promenade]”—a tradition of evening socializing, which ceased to exist after the earthquake. Post-1963 Skopje was depicted as a place that did not foster socialization among its citizens, a feature apparently inherent to the town before 1963.

Ilikj, “Sè ušte čekame.”

The lengthiest overview of the commemorative year of 2007 summed up the series of events with the statement: “[t]oday, Skopje is a pretty, modern city, but also a city that has lost its strand with the past.”

“41 godina od katastrofalniot zemjotres.”

This juxtaposition of pre- and post-earthquake Skopje was not as significant for the expert community, however. A 2005 debate, featured in the daily newspaper Vreme, revealed that the architectural guild agreed that the present-day urban politics failed to build on the premises of the urban planning of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Dobivme mnogu povekje,”

The critical juncture in the commemorations of the 1963 Skopje earthquake and the urban politics in the Macedonian capital city came after the Greek veto for full NATO membership status for Macedonia in 2008 and the electoral win of VMRO-DPMNE-backed Koce Trajanovski in the 2009 local elections. The memory politics of the second VMRO-DPMNE-led government are well discussed in scholarship; the key term here is the “Skopje 2014 project,” a term endorsing the 137 memorial objects erected in the city as of 2010 and the corresponding memorializing undertakings across the state. Although the scholarly emphasis was primarily on the partisan reinterpretation of the ancient past and the Greco-Macedonian quarrel over the state name of Macedonia, this set of memory policies also triggered radical shifts in public perception of recent social and political Macedonian history and, subsequently, the urban history of Skopje.

For an overview, see Trajanovski, “’Skopje 2014’ Reappraised.”

The memory politics in Skopje were heretofore identified as a direct and “nationalistic” response to the post-earthquake reconstruction (aimed, inter alia, at reconstructing some of the most representative objects of pre-1963 Skopje), but also as a general mistreatment of the objects and institutions associated with the Yugoslav Macedonian past.

See Stefoska and Stojanov, “A tale in stone and bronze” and Matiolli, “Regimes of Aesthetics” and “Unchanging boundaries” for the first argument; see Mijalkovic and Urbanek, “Skopje,” Kulić, “Building the Socialist Balkans,” and Janev, “Burdensome past” for the second argument.

The link between the emerging public discourse on pre-1963 Skopje as of the 1980s and VMRO-DPMNE urban politics in Skopje in the early 2000s, however, was not discussed in the relevant literature; yet, it does appear to be an important aspect of the partisan endorsement, interpretation, and policing of memory narrative as an official memory agenda. A fresh look at the earthquake commemorations of the late 2000s and early 2010s provides a neat illustration of this process.

On the eve of the 2009 local elections, the media publicized Trajanovski's initiative to restart the clock on the old Skopje Central Railway Station's façade, the one that was “frozen” at 5:17 a.m. on July 26, 1963, and stayed in that position ever since, an idea he got during a “recent visit to Paris” when he saw some of the Parisian clock towers and public clocks.

Naumovska, “Skopje da bide Skopje.”

The idea, however, was not received as enthusiastically by the relevant experts and authorities; Katerina Blaževska, a prominent columnist, even suggested Trajanovski “buy himself a MP3 player if he wants to listen to music.”

Blaževska, “Koce da se resetira.”

The initiative never saw the light of day. Post-earthquake solidarity was also invoked in 2010 in the context of the “Skopje 2014.” A longer article in the newspaper Dnevnik, for instance, criticized the selection of historical events and figures as their authors did not predict a “monument to the solidarity” in the city.

“’Skopje 2014’ nema ni blagodaram za 1963.”

The debate over the 1963 Skopje earthquake escalated anew in June 2012 when the local authorities proposed a change of the names of 31 city streets, most of them bearing names related to the post-earthquake reconstruction. The oppositional camp even staged a protest against the changes at the city council that ended up being insufficient to stop the assembly. The Skopje earthquake and the post-earthquake reconstruction would ever since that point create heated controversy among the public: in 2013, for instance, the opposition social democrats criticized the VMRO-DPMNE's Prime Minister and President for their failure to attend the ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the earthquake.

The year of 2013 is also marked by the government's decision to refurbish the façade of the Gradski trgovski centar [City trade center] (GTC), a paradigmatic object of the post-earthquake urban reconstruction, and by the social mobilization against this decision. The transethnic front named Go sakam GTC [I love GTC] thus managed to establish a communicative platform for articulating public claims for commons and eventually led to the protection of the center's original outlook. In parallel, Skopje's local museums and contemporary arts strove to rethink the legacy of the post-earthquake reconstruction as early as the late 2000s. Already, in 2009, the Museum of the City of Skopje organized an exhibition entitled “Solidarity” dedicated to the federal and international help toward the city's reconstruction. This topic reappeared in 2010 and 2011 as an exhibition dedicated to the SM. In the following years, the Museum dealt mainly with foreign receptions of the Skopje earthquake, such as, inter alia, the film chronicles of the movie Skopje ‘63 (2014). In 2018, the Museum held an exhibition on the Yugoslav youth brigades and their help in the post-earthquake reconstruction of Skopje. Moreover, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje held a temporary exhibition in 2014 titled “Solidarity: An Unfinished Project?” as a discourse aimed at better understanding its institutional history as well as the notion of solidarity and its reasoning within contemporary society. The reinvention of the 1963 Skopje earthquake and the post-earthquake reconstruction got an additional partisan endorsement in the campaigns for the 2017 local elections. The Social Democrat Petre Šilegov promised to reinstall Tito's message if elected, an operation concluded in 2018 after fierce public debate over the font of the letters. In 2018, 2019, and 2021, the Skopje City Council under Šilegov restored the original names of several city streets that had been changed to reference post-earthquake solidarity and set the annual commemorations of the 1963 Skopje earthquake high on the agenda of the local government.

Concluding Remarks

The 1963 Skopje earthquake and the post-earthquake solidarity are unarguably two formative events in the recent urban history of North Macedonia's capital city. As such, they were both used as vehicles by various actors and agencies to promote political and ideological slogans, a process best observed when looking at the annual commemorations of the earthquake. Herein, I identified three commemorative phases. The first (1964–81) went hand in hand with the rapid urban buildup; its major commemorative highlight was the discursive linkage of commemorating the earthquake's deceased and post-earthquake solidarity. This discursive link was unchallenged in the first commemorative phase period and, as such, shaped the commemorative practices and activities of the upcoming decades. The second commemorative period (1981–2000) was marked by the halt of the reconstruction project, the economic crisis in Yugoslavia, and the deterioration of the interethnic relations in the city. All these events contributed to a particular revision of the discourse about the post-earthquake solidarity in Skopje; international solidarity was still praised in the local public, yet the post-earthquake urban project was reassessed from several standpoints. The most prominent narrative, whose criticism of the project in the 1980s and 1990s was molded around nostalgic discourse for pre-1963 Skopje—its everyday life and cultural and social history—as a safe place against the background of rising interethnic conflict and urban issues. This discourse would be also be drawn on as an argument in the political arena by the rightist VMRO-DPMNE further materializing it as a rationale for the “Skopje 2014 project.” These developments, alongside the social mobilizations and heated public debates over the legacies of the 1963 Skopje earthquake and, especially, of the post-earthquake reconstruction marked the third commemorative period (2001–20). Almost 60 years after these two events, one can conclude that the earthquake and post-earthquake reconstruction legacies function as floating signifiers in the public domain, with many formal and informal actors using their discursive potentials to portray their agendas.

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