SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia on Tuesday erected a giant bronze statue of a warrior on a horse in the main square of the capital, Skopje — a monument that bears an uncanny resemblance to Alexander the Great, the ancient hero of Greece.
The two countries have been locked in a 20-year dispute over the right to claim the region's ancient heritage, with conservative Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski on a drive to pin ancient labels on the country's airports, highways and football stadiums — and now in Skopje's main square.
Macedonians claim they have the same right as Greeks to call themselves descendants of Alexander, arguing that Macedonia in ancient times was one geographical territory, and its heroes now belong to everyone living in its separate states of Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. Greece, however says its neighbor is falsely laying claim to its history and ancient heritage.
The 28-meter (92-foot) tall monument, was lifted into place with a series of cranes and cables on Tuesday while a small crowd of about 100 people welcomed the monument with applause and cheers.
"I'm proud and happy that people after three years now can see what my work looks like, said Valentina Stefanovska, the work's sculptor. "I'm especially proud that this would be the Macedonian legacy for future generations."
The 30 ton statue, which stands on a massive pedestal which is also a fountain, cost about €9.4 million ($13.38 million) and will be officially inaugurated on the 20th anniversary of Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia on September 8.
Although officially named "Warrior on a Horse," it's face closely resembles ancient depictions of Alexander, the warrior king born in Pella, northern Greece — once the capital of the ancient Macedonian kingdom — who carved out an empire that reached the Himalayas before his death at age 32 in 323 B.C. The warrior is astride a horse that also bears a striking resemblance to Bucephalus — Alexander's famous charge.
"This is the statue that Macedonia deserves. Grandiose and proud, as we, the Macedonians, are," said Dimitar Kirov, a 76-year-old retired engineer as he watched the statue being erected.
Authorities also erected statues of Philip II, Alexander's father, in two locations on Tuesday — an eight-meter high monument in the southern town of Bitola, and in Skopje's municipality of Gazi Baba.
Macedonia and Greece, its southern neighbor, have failed to resolve a name dispute that has blocked the tiny republic's accession to NATO and progress toward becoming a member of the European Union.
Macedonia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, argues it has been treated unfairly by its more powerful neighbor and says a 1995 agreement to change its constitution and flag should have ended any argument over potential claims on territory.