Macedonian opposition chief shuns emergency political talks

Macedonian opposition chief shuns emergency political talks

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia’s opposition chief rejected the president’s call for emergency party leaders’ talks Friday, hours after demonstrators — mostly supporters of the country’s dominant conservative party — invaded parliament and assaulted opposition lawmakers.

An official in the Social Democrat party told the AP Zoran Zaev would not be attending the talks, but did not provide further detail. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.

Police said 102 people were injured, mostly lightly, in the riot. Zaev was among the victims, as was the head of a small ethnic Albanian opposition party, and 22 police officers.

The country is in a deep political crisis that started with a wiretapping scandal more than two years ago, and inconclusive elections last year further complicated matters. Macedonia is also increasingly divided along ethnic lines, with demonstrators protesting against opposition plans to give greater powers to the ethnic Albanian minority — a quarter of the country’s population.

The European Union condemned Thursday’s violence, and said that the cornerstones of democracy should be respected. In neighbouring Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic called emergency security consultations over the unrest.

Conservative VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski also deplored the violence, but said his political opponents provoked it.

Speaking at his party headquarters early Friday, Gruevski said the Social Democrats consciously broke the country’s law and constitution by electing a new parliament speaker — an ethnic Albanian politician — despite the months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

“Greed to seize power at any cost is the direct cause which led to this adverse situation, and they bear responsibility for it,” Gruevski said.

The violence started when dozens of protesters, many masked, broke through a police cordon after the speaker’s election, shouting, throwing chairs and wielding camera tripods abandoned by startled journalists.

Police said arrests have been made, but gave no further details.

Clashes lasted for hours Thursday night, with police initially doing little to stop the invasion, and the crowd inside parliament swelled to several hundred. Eventually, police used stun grenades to evacuate the building, and free lawmakers and journalists trapped inside.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Friday that “violence is unacceptable, even more so when it happens in the house of democracy.”

Mogherini, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Malta, called the incident a “serious crisis that can be dangerous.”

Macedonia’s political crisis started in early 2015, when Zaev accused then-prime minister Gruevski of masterminding a massive illegal wiretapping operation against the judiciary, police, politicians, journalists, foreign diplomats and religious leaders.

Gruevski denies wrongdoing, and has blamed the wiretaps on unspecified foreign spies.

His party won December’s elections with a slim majority, and then refused to form a coalition with ethnic Albanian parties who are demanding that Albanian be declared the country’s official second language.

Zaev agreed to the Albanian demands, striking a coalition deal, but President Gjorge Ivanov refused him the mandate to govern, claiming the Albanian demands threaten the country’s sovereignty.

A six-month uprising by ethnic Albanian rebels seeking stronger minority rights in 2001 brought the country to the brink of civil war. Peace was secured after international mediation.

Konstantin Testorides, The Associated Press