April 3, 2017 / 5:01 PM / 4 months ago

EU tells Macedonia, paralysed by political crisis, to focus on EU entry

3 Min Read

European Council President Donald Tusk takes part in a European People Party (EPP) summit in St Julian's, Malta, March 30, 2017.Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

SKOPJE (Reuters) - European Council President Donald Tusk said in Macedonia on Monday he hoped the country's leaders would avoid fueling ethnic tensions and focus on advancing towards EU membership instead.

The Balkan state, with a Slav majority and a large ethnic Albanian minority, has been without a government since December, when inconclusive elections led to feuding over the influence of ethnic Albanians in a proposed coalition administration.

Tusk met President Gjorge Ivanov on Monday to discuss ways out of the political crisis that has mired the country since a 2015 surveillance scandal that forced nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to resign.

"I came here with the strong message from the EU leaders that commitment to European perspectives is unequivocal," Tusk told reporters after meeting Ivanov.

"I therefore hope that you will continue to follow this compass and avoid anything that could further fuel tensions also along ethnic lines."

In a snap election in December, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE won 51 seats to the Social Democrats' 49, leaving neither able to form a government without parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up a third of the population.

Last month Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev won the support of three ethnic Albanian parties after promising them a law on wider use of Albanian language, a deal which triggered daily protests in Skopje. But Ivanov refused to give Zaev a mandate to form a government.

"The new government cannot be contested by anyone," Ivanov said after meeting Tusk. "A blackmailed government is an unstable government that will only last a short time and have damaging consequences."

The crisis is the worst since Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to membership of the European Union and of NATO.

At an EU summit earlier last month EU leaders reiterated their commitment to the Balkans. Russia is trying to increase its influence in the region.

Macedonia's accession into the EU and NATO has been blocked over a name dispute with Greece, which has a northern province also called Macedonia and regards Skopje's use of the name as illegitimate.

Tusk and Ivanov also discussed Europe's migrant crisis. Macedonia was on the forefront of the crisis in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of people from Middle East, Asia and Africa crossed the Western Balkans on their way towards Western Europe.

Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Marine Hass and Andrew Roche

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