Macedonia crisis deepens as president blocks probe into politicians

3 min

Skopje (AFP)

Macedonia's president on Tuesday blocked all judicial proceedings against top politicians embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal that sparked a major political crisis, a move the European Union said raised "serious concerns".

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev blasted the move by President Gjorge Ivanov as illegal, and a few hundred people took to the streets of the capital Skopje in protest.

In a televised address to the nation, Ivanov said he was bringing the legal proceedings to a halt "in order to put an end to this political crisis, which will end with democratic elections".

Last year Zaev's Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (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 return filed charges against Zaev, accusing him of "spying" and attempts to "destabilise" the poor Balkan country, which is hoping to join the EU.

A special prosecutor has been probing the wire-tapping scandal and all the allegations.

Gruevski -- the former strongman leader who is a political ally of the president -- was among those being targeted in the probes, along with Zaev, former interior minister Gordana Jankulovska and ex-intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov.

- 'Macedonia's future at risk' -

The EU expressed alarm at the president's move.

"Today's decision by President Ivanov on the pardoning of a number of officials raises serious concerns," the bloc's foreign policy arm said in a statement.

"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."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said on Twitter that Ivanov's decision was "not in line with my understanding of the rule of law."

Hahn urged Macedonian political leaders to get back to the negotiating table, warning that recent political actions "put the Euro-Atlantic future of their country seriously at risk."

Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005 but accession talks have yet to open.

Zaev said the pardons broke last year's EU-mediated political agreement to end the crisis, and urged protesters to take to the streets. A few hundred demonstrators gathered outside the prosecutor's office late Tuesday.

Some of them hurled eggs at the headquarters of Ivanov's VMRO-DPMNE party, which said it was "shocked" at the president's decision.

"We have no doubt in his honest and good intentions... but we want to express our huge disagreement with his move," the party said in a statement.

The wire-tapping scandal triggered rival protests on the streets of Skopje and eventually prompted the EU to step in and mediate.

All political parties eventually agreed to solve the crisis at snap elections that were scheduled initially for April 24 but then postponed to June 5 following concerns among the opposition and international community that the vote would not be free or fair.

In light of the latest developments, Hahn tweeted: "I have serious doubts if credible elections are still possible."

Earlier this month Zaev's party said they would boycott the polls, fearing they would be open to fraud. The SDSM has also boycotted parliament since the 2014 elections, which it said were fraudulent.