The Symbolic Potential of the Past in Times of Political Crises in South Eastern Europe

Biljana Volchevska PhD research


In the past decade different forms of authoritarian regimes have emerged in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The political models of the newly emerged hybrid systems combine totalitarian state control, ethnocentrism, religious conservatism with liberal democracy and free market economy. In such systems ‘difference’, ‘other’ and ‘oppositional’ are produced in many ways, and one of them is through memory narratives, heritage interpretation and cultural representation. Furthermore, problems of recognition and cultural domination are not restricted to South East Europe; these problems fuel most of the recent global political and armed conflicts.

The larger aim in this project is to connect the heritage production and cultural policy with the larger socio-economic milieu in which such policies are being shaped. Hence, in formulating this project it is assumed that political struggles can only be understood if the theoretical framework includes both the socio-economic reality on one side, and the politics of cultural inclusion/exclusion on the other. Since that aim is too broad to take on in one PhD dissertation, only certain aspects of the problem will be taken into consideration. Under what circumstances can heritage production and memory narratives support a peace building processes? And in which cases are they used as conflict provocateurs? My focus is twofold: (1) I will investigate the potential of memory narratives and heritage production in bringing social and political change in society. (2) I will look at social and civil movements that emerge as reaction to oppressive cultural politics.

As a point of departure, I use the case study of Macedonia, which in the past ten years has undergone cultural rebranding through massive architectural and monument projects, and initiatives for rewriting the national history. The study also discusses and draws from different case studies from South Eastern Europe in order to trace and compare contemporary mechanisms for creating and defending national identity through heritage production.

The research is structured around 4 themes:

-          Heritage in Conflict: Historic perspectives on the usage of symbolic potential in South Eastern Europe for the purpose of fulfilling national agendas. Regional approach.

-          Heritage Production and Representation: Monuments, Museums and Memories, as instruments for creating/reconciling social differences. The case of Macedonia.

-          Cultural Discrimination through Heritage Production: looking at unrecognised histories, ignored minorities, despised sexualities.

-          The Role of Material Culture and Memory Narrative in Shaping International Politics: looking at the role of heritage and memory in shaping bilateral and international relations.

Finally, a word about the method: This study is anchored in heritage studies and has as its backdrop the discussions on the nature of heritage as set by Lowenthal (1998 and 1985), Smith (2004), Huyssen (2003), Graham, Ashworth and Tunbridge (2000) and others. However, I attempt to take a hybrid approach and combine gender studies, historical methods political sciences and political anthropology.

Statues from the project Skopje 2014, Macedonia