Macedonia is braced for protests after its president halted investigations into all politicians embroiled in a vast corruption scandal, prompting the European Union and United States to question the Balkan state's democracy and rule of law.
Gjorge Ivanov’s announcement reignited a crisis that began last year, when wiretapped conversations appeared to reveal that many people with links to the government were involved in vote-rigging, misuse of state funds, manipulation of law courts and media and even a murder cover-up, among other alleged crimes.
Opposition leader Zoran 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.
Mr Zaev’s publication of the wiretaps threw Macedonian politics into turmoil, triggered street protests, and led to Mr Gruevski accusing the opposition chief of working with unspecified foreign intelligence agencies to stage a coup.
The EU stepped in to mediate in crisis talks, which resulted in a deal for early elections this year, for steps to be taken to ensure a free and fair ballot, and for a special prosecution team to take charge of all cases in the wiretapping scandal.
Mr Ivanov effectively halted the work of the special prosecutor on Tuesday, saying he was pardoning all those under investigation so as "to put an end to this agony".
“I am making an important step towards mutual reconciliation, [which] will help restore a normal political and democratic fight . . . based on a competition of ideas and results instead of mutual exhaustion and destruction,” he said.
Mr Ivanov claimed the scandal was “someone else’s game” and “in someone else’s interests”, without giving details.
“We have had enough of seeing Macedonians going against Macedonians,” he declared, while looking ahead to “fair and democratic elections.”
“Thus reconciled, the country would be able to move forward, leaving behind these two dark years that history will consider as a black mark on our generation.”
Mr Zaev denounced the move as “a coup” by “the man put in place by Nikola Gruevski”, and he marched with hundreds of people through the Macedonian capital, Skopje, to Mr Ivanov’s office, which some protesters pelted with eggs.
Mr Gruevski’s party, which denies all corruption allegations, also said it was “shocked” by the president’s decision.
Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, said Mr Ivanov's actions "are not in line with my understanding of rule of law".
“In light of these developments, I have serious doubts if credible elections are still possible. Political leaders must know that the actions we have seen recently put the Euro-Atlantic future of their country seriously at risk.”
Jess Baily, the US ambassador to Macedonia, said: "A blanket pardon without due process protects corrupt politicians and their associates. Let the SPO [special prosecutor's office] and courts do their jobs."
Mr Zaev’s party has already vowed to boycott the June 5th snap election, because key media reforms and updates to electoral rolls have not been completed.