The European Union’s bid to defuse Macedonia’s political crisis is in jeopardy, as street protests continue and the country’s main opposition party threatens to boycott talks scheduled for Friday unless key demands are met.
Thousands of people have rallied in several Macedonian cities every evening for more than a week, in protest at President Gjorge Ivanov’s decision to pardon dozens of politicians charged in a vast corruption and spying scandal.
Mr Ivanov claimed he was seeking to ease tension in Macedonian society ahead of early elections set for June 5th, but his move infuriated opposition politicians and supporters and alarmed the European Union and United States.
Macedonia has been in political turmoil since opposition leader Zoran Zaev released wiretapped conversations last year that appeared to reveal the involvement of officials in crimes ranging from vote-rigging and misuse of state funds to a murder cover-up.
Mr Zaev said the wiretaps came from a covert spying operation authorised by Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, which kept tabs on some 20,000 people, including many powerful figures.
The scandal triggered street protests, and prompted Mr Gruevski to accuse Mr Zaev of working with unspecified foreign intelligence agencies to stage a coup.
The EU brokered crisis talks that resulted in the government’s resignation and a deal for early elections to be held this year once reforms had been made to ensure a fair ballot, and for a special prosecution team to tackle the wiretap scandal.
Saying he wanted to “put an end to this agony”, Mr Ivanov last week pardoned 56 people who were being investigated by the special prosecutors, including Mr Gruevski, Mr Zaev, several ex-ministers, mayors and businessmen.
Opposition groups say the decree issued by Mr Ivanov – who is an ally of Mr Gruevski – clearly favours the former premier and his associates, even though they too have criticised the president’s decision and asked to fight their cases in court.
With opposition protests growing in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and several other cities, and pro-Gruevski groups planning a major counter-rally on Thursday night, the EU hoped Friday's scheduled talks in Vienna would ease the rising tension.
Mr Zaev said on Wednesday, however, that he would only attend if “Ivanov withdraws all the pardons he granted, and…parliament re-convenes and revokes the decision to call elections on June 5th, because there are no conditions for it”.
He complained that Mr Gruevski and his allies had neither implemented changes to media law, nor updated Macedonia’s electoral rolls, making it impossible to hold “fair, democratic and credible elections.”
The EU and US have condemned Mr Ivanov’s mass pardon, saying it cast doubt on Macedonia’s commitment to the rule of law and democracy.