Protesters took to the streets of Skopje for the fourth night in a row Friday, after Macedonia confirmed snap June 5 elections as the country grapples with a bitter political crisis.
The date was officially set despite the angry anti-government rallies in protest at President Gjorge Ivanov’s decision to halt probes into more than 50 public figures, including top politicians embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal.
“Based on my constitutional and legal authority… I today signed the decision to call early elections… on June 5, 2016,” parliament speaker Trajko Veljanoski said in a statement.
The early elections, originally agreed for April 24 and then postponed in February to June 5, are part of an EU-brokered agreement to solve the country’s seething political feud.
But Zoran Zaev, leader of the main opposition SDSM, insisted Friday that he would boycott the vote, claiming that conditions for a free and fair vote were not in place.
Ivanov, however, pledged to push ahead, vowing that the ballot would be a “new chapter for Macedonia”.
Thousands of people, mainly SDSM supporters, took to the streets again on Friday, demanding Ivanov either revoke his decision or resign, as well as calling for the election to be postponed.
Police responded by blocking off traffic near parliament and deploying four armoured vehicles and a water cannon.
One placard read: “Exchange the president for 10,000 refugees” — a reference to Europe’s migrant problem and the fact that Macedonia last month closed its border with Greece where thousands of Syrian and other migrants are camped in squalid conditions as they attempt to reach Western Europe.
An AFP reporter witnessed no serious incidents before the crowds on the streets dispersed in the evening.
– ‘Euro-Atlantic future at risk’ –
Macedonia’s political crisis began last year when the SDSM accused then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski of wiretapping around 20,000 people, including politicians and journalists, and said the recordings revealed high-level corruption.
The government denied the accusations and, in response, filed charges against Zaev, accusing him of “spying” and attempting to “destabilise” the Balkan country.
Gruevski, who had been prime minister since 2006, resigned in January in order to pave the way for early elections.
But tensions surged again Tuesday when Ivanov announced the halt of judicial investigations into 56 people, including his ally Gruevski — still Macedonia’s most influential political figure.
Others affected by the decision included former interior minister Gordana Jankulovska, ex-intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov, as well as Zaev and former SDSM leader and ex-president Branko Crvenkovski.
Both sides have said they would rather see the probe go ahead.
Ivanov’s move has sparked condemnation abroad, with the United States and the European Union warning it raised questions about the rule of law in Macedonia and could hurt its aspirations to join the 28-member EU.
“Europe needs a stable FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) guided by the rule of law,” EU president Donald Tusk tweeted on Friday.
“The country’s Euro-Atlantic future is at risk.”
– ‘Obstacle to credible elections’ –
EU and US representatives met the president Thursday, but gave no details about what was discussed.
“Mass pardon = impunity = obstacle to credible elections, Euro-Atlantic path,” US ambassador Jess Baily tweeted after the meeting.
Ivanov has, however, received support from Moscow, which accuses outside forces of fomenting the crisis.
“The opposition, with outside help, is again used for stirring political conflict with the goal of disturbing the elections,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said Thursday.
Meanwhile, many Macedonians voiced concern over what they see as a fight between the West and Russia over influence.
“It is obvious that some are backed by the West and others by Moscow,” Ivo Spasovski, a pensioner, told AFP, adding that he hoped Macedonia would not be made to suffer because of “big powers and their games”.
Non-EU Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic of 2.1 million people, has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but accession talks are yet to start.