Grenzen » State Identities and Architecture in Albania and Macedonia: Ontological Security Perspective

State Identities and Architecture in Albania and Macedonia: Ontological Security Perspective

Milan Krstić

This outline aims to investigated whether the ontological security theory could be used to explain the linkage between certain public architecture policies and practices in Macedonia and Albania and (foreign policy) identities of these states. Public landscapes in Macedonia and Albania have undergone significant changes since the beginning of their political transition in 1990s. The gigantic project “Skopje 2014” is probably the most important example of such fundamental architectural changes. While various theoretical approaches could serve the explanation of different urban planning policies in Macedonia and Albania, the ontological security theory has so far not been applied to these two cases (to the best of our knowledge). The aim of this outline is, therefore, to quickly test whether the application of the ontological security theory to these two cases seems justified and promising.

Ontological security theory

Ontological security could be defined as a “confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action” (Giddens 1991, 92). This originally sociological theory soon spread into the scientific field of International Relations and International Security, starting from the 2000s (see for example: Mitzen 2006). The key aspect of this theory is the claim that certain elements of states’ behavior in international relations cannot be explained neither by the mere cost-benefit logic (rational behavior/ theory of rational choice), nor by the logic of appropriateness (normative behavior/social constructivist theory), but can be instead best explained through the states’ desire to protect their self-identity. In other words, states sometimes behave opposite of their cost-benefit rational, or even opposite of the norms accepted in the international society, all with an aim to protect what they consider essential for the continuity and consistency of their identity.

However, the existing literature has been mostly focused on the behavior (habitus) of states in their contacts (communication) with foreign audience, but not on the “material environment” and the ways in which material space could be influenced by the factor of ontological security, even though the spatial dimension of ontological security has been very important in the sociology studies. This gap was, however, recently addressed by Ejdus (2017) in his study on the way in which Serbia’s search for ontological security influenced the destiny of certain buildings in Belgrade, such as the Military Chief of Staff building, which was purposefully left ruined as a symbol of causalities caused by NATO bombing in 1999.


At the end of the 2000s, Macedonia started the gigantic project “Skopje 2014”, aimed at constructing numerous buildings in city center of Skopje – the majority of which in antic style. While this extremely expensive project was publicly justified with the cost-benefit logic (potential profits from tourism in future etc.), it was rather obvious from the very beginning that in a state like Macedonia, whose GDP is much below the continental average, the cost-benefit calculation for such a project was more than suspicious. On the other hand, projects based on the construction of “antic” objects in the city center, like this one, do not definitely represent any kind of a norm followed by other European cities (such things are common only to certain entertaining places in the world, such as Las Vegas).

It therefore seems that both cost-benefit logic and normative logic are quite flawed in the explanation of this case, which leaves plenty of space for the application of the ontological security theory. The main ontological security argument seems very plausible and intuitive: faced with attacks on its identity which are coming from Greece, as well as with widespread perception of Macedonians as “newcomers” to these territories in comparison to Greeks and Albanians (who perceive themselves as heirs of Ilirs), Macedonians decided to spend money on a project which would symbolize their runaway from the Slavic heritage and “antic” identity, in order to prove their historical continuity in the Balkans.

However, is it actually possible to talk about “security” and continuity of the identity in this case? It seems that there are significant obstacles to such a claim. First of all, the fundaments of such (antic) identity are not solid among the majority of Macedonians since mostly perceive themselves as Slavs, not as ancient Macedonians. Therefore, it seems that we cannot talk about “security” or “continuity” of the existing identity in the case in which this identity is not firm enough.

Moreover, when we look at the consequences of the insistence on such an identity, we can see that it has done nothing but caused ontological insecurity and turbulences, instead of strengthening ontological security in Macedonia! Skopje 2014 became a point of conflict between government and opposition and between different segments of Macedonian society, causing a massive civil society reaction (such as the organization Plostad Sloboda). Eventually, the government which supported this project lost the general and local elections in 2017 from those who opposed these identity building projects.


Albania has not suffered radical changes in the public space similar to those in Skopje. On the contrary – on the very first sight there is a feeling of continuity with earlier public spaces from the communist period. Buildings from this period dominate the landscape in Tirana and other Albanian towns, while communist bunkers could be seen almost everywhere. If one takes these facts into account, he could easily assume that there is no space for the application of ontological security theory. Unlike in Skopje, in Tirana we cannot find such a project which would be hard to explain using the cost-benefit or normative logics, and which would be based on the construction of antic-Ilir-Ottoman or any other retro-style buildings.

However, similar to the case of Macedonia, where we offered two counterarguments which might lead us to a completely counterintuitive conclusion – there are certain elements which might show us that the Albanian urban planning was also to a certain extent influenced by the ontological security. First of all, the decision to preserve and adopt communist spaces (through coloring their facades with warm colors or through turning them into museums, such as BunkArt) was perhaps motivated not solely or even not primarily by material reasons, but by the desire to keep the continuity even with some aspects of the communist heritage. The most important one is secularism (which was radical in its form of state atheism during communism), whose moderate form guarantees equality of different religions and unity of the nation. Parallel revival of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox religious spaces proves that the equal presence of different religions in public spaces is indeed very important. The second reason why communist architecture is preserved and modified might be its usefulness for the construction of the “constitutive other” in public space for modern Albanian state. A good example in this regard is the mentioned BunkArt museum, where communist facilities present its hidden and autocratic history in order to send the message that Albania should never again be as isolated as then.


This brief outline has shown that there are sufficient elements calling for the application of the ontological security theory in the very different cases of Macedonia and Albania. Despite the fact that arguments against the applicability of this theory seem to solid as well, the very existence of the abovementioned evidence is enough for the conclusion that further investigation in this direction would be both theoretically and empirically justified. Nevertheless, if to be conducted properly, such a challenging research needs to include extensive field work, numerous structured and semi-structured interviews with relevant actors, as well as a thorough desk analysis of the relevant documents. Even if the analysis provides strong evidences in favor of the ontological security theory   explanation of certain urban planning practices in Macedonia and Albania, all alternative explanations (not only rationalistic and constructivist approaches, but as well those focusing on leaders, corruption and their private interests which might be the actual variable) is necessary.