Skopje (AFP) – Macedonia was mired in fresh turmoil Wednesday after the president blocked judicial proceedings against top politicians embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal, sending protesters back onto the streets in a crisis that threatens the country’s EU aspirations.
The United States and European Union both voiced “serious concerns” about the move by President Gjorge Ivanov, which drew hundreds of demonstrators onto the streets of Skopje on Tuesday evening.
The Balkan country is also on the frontline of the migrant crisis, with its use of force to prevent desperate migrants from crossing onto its territory leading to a row with neighbouring Greece.
In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Ivanov said he was bringing the legal proceedings to a halt “in order to put an end to this political crisis” ahead of elections planned for June.
Last year, the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) accused then prime minister Nikola Gruevski of wiretapping some 20,000 people, including politicians and journalists, and said the recordings revealed high-level corruption.
The government denied the accusations and in return filed charges against SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, accusing him of “spying” and attempting to “destabilise” the country of two million people, which is hoping to join the EU.
– ‘Coup d’etat’ –
Gruevski was among those targeted in the probes, along with Zaev, former interior minister Gordana Jankulovska and ex-intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov.
An ally of the president, Gruevski stepped down as premier in January, paving the way for parliamentary elections — but the opposition has announced plans to boycott the polls, saying it fears electoral fraud.
Although he may himself benefit from the dropping of the probe, Zaev denounced what he called a “coup d’etat” by the president.
A group of protesters in Skopje pelted Ivanov’s party’s headquarters with eggs and calls for further protests were circulating on social networks.
– Concerns about rule of law –
Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005 but accession talks have yet to open and the prolonged crisis will do nothing to improve its chances.
The EU voiced alarm over the dropping of the wiretap inquiry, saying it raised “serious concerns”.
“We call on all sides to avoid interventions that risk undermining years of efforts within the country and with the support of the international community to strengthen the rule of law,” a spokesperson for the bloc’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.
The United States ambassador to Skopje, Jess Baily, warned in a tweet that “a blanket pardon without due process protects corrupt politicians and their associates.”
Ivanov’s move appeared to take even his own VMRO-DPMNE party by surprise, with the party expressing “huge disagreement” at the decision.
James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics, said the EU needed “to very seriously consider whether Macedonia still merits the designation as a candidate for the membership of EU.”
“Whether it was Gruevski’s decision or Ivanov’s decision that doesn’t matter. It’s all part and parcel of the ruling class which has become completely discredited and completely rotten,” Ker-Lindsay told AFP.
The original wire-tapping scandal triggered protests in Skopje, eventually prompting the EU to step in and mediate.
Macedonia’s political parties eventually agreed to solve the crisis by holding elections scheduled initially for April 24 but later postponed to June 5 to address concerns among the opposition and international community they would not be free or fair.
Reacting to the latest developments, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted: “I have serious doubts if credible elections are still possible.”
Macedonia has also been in the spotlight over its harsh handling of migrants who tried to storm the razor-wire fence sealing the border with Greece.
Greece has accused its non-EU neighbour of shaming Europe by using tear gas and, according to Athens also rubber bullets, to prevent those fleeing war, persecution and poverty continuing their journey to northern Europe.
Ivanov visited the frontier with Greece on Wednesday.