Protesters ransack Macedonia president's office as crisis deepens

Macedonia protesters ransack president's office

Skopje (AFP) - Protesters ransacked the offices of Macedonia's presidency late Wednesday and set fire to the furniture, as thousands took to the capital's streets in a deepening political crisis.

Sporadic clashes broke out in Skopje as demonstrators pelted buildings with eggs and stones, with one group smashing all the windows at President Gjorge Ivanov's public offices before setting the furniture alight.

Twelve people were arrested and a journalist was injured in the clashes, police spokesman Toni Angelovski told AFP.

The demonstrators are demanding that Ivanov resign after his shock decision Tuesday to block legal proceedings against top politicians embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal.

The United States and European Union have both voiced serious concern over Ivanov's move, which is threatening Macedonia's aspirations to join the EU.

The Balkan country is also on the frontline of Europe's migrant crisis, and has been under the spotlight over its use of force to prevent desperate migrants from crossing the shuttered border with Greece.

- Anger on the streets -

Ivanov's move has deepened a crisis that began last year when the opposition SDSM party accused then premier 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.

Wednesday's clashes came as people poured onto the streets of Skopje for a second night running, with smashed glass from the windows of Ivanov's offices littering the ground and riot police turning out in force.

In front of the parliament, SDSM supporters tried to break through a police cordon towards rival supporters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, an AFP journalist said.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn urged calm, tweeting that he was calling "upon all political parties and responsible citizens to refrain from acts of violence".

- 'Coup d'etat' -

In a televised address to the nation Tuesday, Ivanov said he was halting proceedings against politicians embroiled in the scandal "in order to put an end to this political crisis" ahead of elections planned for June.

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

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.

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 US 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 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 membership of the 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 over opposition and international concerns that they would not be free or fair.

Hahn tweeted on Tuesday: "I have serious doubts if credible elections are still possible."