Public spaces as a battleground by Katerina Mojanchevska

Public spaces are important in the Macedonian context because they’re one of the few places where people from diverse ethnic backgrounds can interact. But these spaces are undergoing fundamental changes. Public spaces are becoming sites for symbolic wars between the ethno-nationalists of the two major ethnic groups in the country. Diversity is seen as a threat, and a type of “staged multiculturalism” is visible.

The importance of public spaces

In a country divided along ethnic lines, public spaces seem to be the only meeting place left for ethnic groups that are growing more divided. Moreover, contact is the only way to surpass ethnic fragmentation that has been accelerated in recent years in Macedonia.

Macedonia is one of successor countries of ex-Yugoslavia. In 1991, the country proclaimed independence and initiated a process of building a nation-state with a majoritarian political design in a general liberal democratic framework. The Macedonians constituting 64.2 percent of the population were the majority and the legitimate political community while the Albanians, Turks, Roma, Vlachs, Serbs, and Bosnians, which represented 25.2 percent of the population, enjoyed equal rights and obligations as the majority group. Yet in practice, the minorities were stranded by difficulties in equal access to political life, the labour market, education, social and cultural life.

In the Macedonian context of recognising diversity, the popular belief of politicians, academics or citizens is that the dominant group has the right to decide how accommodation of cultural diversity should be installed in public space. Symbols of a group’s ethnic history and cultural memory facilitate recognition and identification with space; public spaces thereby essentially become ethnic spaces.

The subjective valuation of public spaces: a research topic

For my PhD research, I explored how people felt and understood the practices through which language, ethnicity, religion and collective cultural symbols are legitimised in the physical form and the political, social and symbolic (cultural) value of public spaces in their neighbourhoods. The research concludes that the political, social and symbolic values of public spaces in Skopje can be understood in terms of a “diversity paradox”. Why?

Public spaces in Skopje are not natural and spontaneous sites of positive intercultural contact. Residents in mixed neighbourhoods more often than those in ethnic neighbourhoods opt for co-ethnic cultural events in co-ethnic public spaces where people from their ethnic group go. Self-segregation of ethnic groups is prevalent. The colliding ethnocratic accommodation of diversity in public space, especially in mixed neighbourhoods, generates a sense of symbolic threat and forges people to compartmentalise within their own ethnic group.

Diversity as threat to national unity

The research found that diversity is seen as a threat to national unity. My most compelling discovery is that is the case of Skopje and Macedonia we are talking about “staged multiculturalism”—it is not lived or experienced, but designed and created. The effects of such ethnocratic politics are obvious. A high level of ethnic distance in particular among Macedonians and Albanians is evident in personal networking and socialisation in public spaces. Seventeen years after the conflict and systemic investment in multicultural policies, diversity is seen as a threat to national unity,

Relevance of the research

This reading is important to the cities in the Balkans that struggle with ethnic fragmentation as it is to the cities considering themselves as ethnically homogeneous, but which do face claims for the accommodation of diversity, in particular after the explosive waves of immigration that we have witnessed since 2015. Habermas[1] (2016) contends that states and cities have no other option than to open the stage for those different from the “norm”, facilitate the deliberative process of interpretation, and recognize needs and forge active urban citizenship. This leads me to recommend ways in which to plan for diversity in public spaces:

  • The interpretation and recognition of difference through deliberation should follow the political acts of planning of public spaces;
  • The habitual engagement and interdependence of goals and actions between social groups and places should be organised and allow more structural contact, flexibility, contestation, transgression between identity(ies), group(s) and associational belonging(s);
  • The social planning of public spaces as places of conflict and negotiation and a process of “city-making” should couple the technocratic production of “city being made”. Urban and social planning of cities should support each other, rather than professional planning dominating over citizens` involvement in city making.

I conclude with Leonie Sandercock[2] (1998: 30), who critically observes that:

 “The multicultural city cannot be imagined without a belief in inclusive democracy and the diversity of social justice claims of the disempowered communities in existing cities. If we want to work toward a policy of inclusion, then we had better have a good understanding of the exclusionary effects of planning’s past practices and ideologies. And if we want to plan in the future for heterogeneous publics (rather than a unitary public interest), acknowledging and nurturing the full diversity of all of the different social groups in the multicultural city, then we need to develop a new kind of multicultural literacy. An essential part of that literacy is familiarity with the multiple histories of urban communities, especially as those histories intersect with struggles over space and place claiming, with planning policies and resistances to them, with traditions of indigenous planning, and with questions of belonging and identity and acceptance of difference.”

[1]Habermas, J. (2016) ‘For a democratic polarization’. Interview with Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 22 November.
[2] Sandercock, L. (1998) ‘Introduction: Framing Insurgent Historiographies for Planning’, in Sandercock, L. (ed.) Making the invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1–33.

Picture credit: Paul Goyette

Katerina Mojanchevska_PhD defence2018About the author:

Katerina Mojanchevska is a recent doctoral graduate from the ISS (May 2018). She has been working in the civil society sector in Macedonia on research projects, trainings and seminars in the field of cultural policy, and urban and social development. Her research and professional interests encompass intersection among identity, public space, inter-culturality and innovation in urban governance.

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