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‘Skopje 2014 Uncovered’: How to create a useful database

When the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Macedonia initially started documenting ‘Skopje 2014’, it was searching for an answer to a question that was repeatedly asked by the public without a response: ‘how much the entire project costs’. Buildings and dozens of monuments rose but the silence of the institutions only led to rumours and speculations. The authorities initially said it would cost 80 million Euro but it was clear that this amount did not account for everything that was built. Estimates ranged up to 500 million Euro. The massive makeover project was launched soon after the right-wing party VMRO DPMNE came to power in 2006, led by Nikola Gruevski with the intention of giving the capital a neo-classical new look that would validate the country’s claims of past links to ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Some journalists had attempted to document the costs for separate buildings but most efforts to obtain public documents resulted in nothing but silence, officials and institutions ignoring calls for transparency.

The project was controversial for multiple reasons: not only due to the cost of it but also on the grounds of aesthetics (introducing neo-classical style in the 21st century), the quality of the construction, and the ideology behind it – the attempt to impose a national identity that would paint Macedonians as descendants of Alexander the Great.

The database ‘Skopje 2014 Uncovered’, compiled over an eight month period and published in July 2015, revealed that the Skopje revamp cost about 560 million Euro, not 80 million originally claimed. The database contains all sums, contracts, suppliers, names of companies and authors as well as investors of the project, and thus reflects the actual total expenditure. Since 2015 the database has been constantly updated. By early 2018 the cost of ‘Skopje 2014’ had shot up to 684 million Euro.

The investigation covers more than 130 objects, all financed with public money with main investors being the Ministry of Culture, the General Department for Joint and Common Works, the Skopje Centar Municipality, the City of Skopje as well as other municipalities and joint stock companies with state shareholders.

The investigation is based on data procured through the Access to Public Information Act, the official website of the Public Procurement Bureau, the ‘Skopje 2014’ audit and a joint report by the government, the Skopje Centar Municipality and the Ministry of Culture, presented after the 2013 local elections.

During the investigation, BIRN submitted almost 150 public information requests in the search for data on the project. Almost all institutions complied, though most missed the thirty-day deadline.

The documents obtained by BIRN show that more than 300 legal entities and physical persons have participated in the grand makeover of the capital, while over 30 different institutions have contributed funding to the project out of the state budget.

The database, published in Macedonian and English (skopje2014.prizma.birn.eu.com) documents in detail each of the 28 buildings, 34 monuments, 39 sculptures, four bridges, five public squares, fountains, an triumphal arch, a Ferris wheel worth 18 million Euro, multi-storey parking garages, dozens of facades as well as costs for maintenance and lighting.

Apart from basic information about each structure, the database provides users with information about the costs, the investors (different government institutions), the designers, and the construction companies. It also offers the option to download available documents.

The database also provides summary data about the top contractors and designers and shows that one construction company has won contracts worth one third of the entire project, with an amount over 200 million Euro, while one individual sculptor has contracts worth nearly three million Euro.

In addition to the summary data, the database facilitates easy search and cross-analysis of the data by users seeking in-depth information on public money spent on the project.

The database has served as basis for numerous investigative reports by BIRN and has exposed multiple cases of abuse, corruption, and breach of procedure. Since 2017, Macedonia’s Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO) has been investigating the making of ‘Skopje 2014’. Apart from showing that the entire projects is seven times more expensive than originally estimated, the database revealed that more than two thirds of the total amount spent for construction went to five companies. The company that won one third of the total budget of the project, over 200 million Euro, had built the new headquarters of VMRO DPMNE, known as the white palace. In addition to the database, BIRN investigations revealed links between the NGO that donated monuments and the government.

The ‘Skopje 2014 Uncovered’ database has won the most prestigious awards in the country, the Nikola Mladenov award for investigative journalism, and the EU award for investigative journalism, and is recognised the sole reliable source of information about the project ‘Skopje 2014’, both in Macedonia and abroad.