SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia's embattled prime minister rallied tens of thousands of supporters on Monday in a show of force a day after opponents held their own mass protest to demand his resignation over damaging wire-tap revelations.
The crowd in central Skopje appeared comparable in size to Sunday’s opposition rally calling for Nikola Gruevski to quit over a flood of disclosures that the West says have cast serious doubt on the state of democracy in the former Yugoslav republic.
The crisis rocking Gruevski’s nine-year conservative rule is the worst since Western diplomacy dragged Macedonia from the brink of all-out civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to European Union and NATO membership.
A dispute with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia’s name has halted its Western integration, and in that time critics say Gruevski has tilted to the right, stoking nationalism and monopolising power in coalition with a party of ethnic Albanian former guerrillas.
Since February, he has faced embarrassing revelations against him and his ministers contained in taped conversations that appear to expose tight government control over journalists, judges and the conduct of elections.
Opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev says the tapes, which he has dubbed “bombs”, were made illegally by the government, part of a mass surveillance operation targeting 20,000 allies and opponents alike, and leaked to him by a whistleblower.
Gruevski has not disputed that the voices on the tapes are genuine but says that a foreign spy service made the recordings and that the audio has been doctored. Zaev has been charged with violence against the state.
“We’re here to defend our country,” said Snezana, a 28-year-old pro-government protester who declined to give her surname. “It’s time we stand up against this dark foreign scenario. Zaev doesn’t even realise he’s just a puppet.”
Gruevski told the crowd: "Macedonia does not need a political leadership that places itself in the service of a foreign intelligence service."
"This man will not be prime minister," he said of Zaev. "His five minutes are up."
Western diplomats in Skopje are trying to mediate a solution to the crisis, concerned at the potential impact of political instability on inter-ethnic peace.
On May 9 and 10, a police raid on a northern ethnic Albanian neighbourhood left 18 people dead: eight police officers and 10 Albanians described by the government as terrorists.
Ethnic Albanians account for some 30 percent of the population.
Dozens of anti-government protesters have set up tents in front of Gruevski’s government office, saying they will stay until he steps down.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)