SKOPJE Macedonia needs to rise above political feuding and form a government as soon as possible to unblock the Balkan country's path to European Union membership, the EU said on Tuesday.
An EU summit earlier this month placed the Balkans high on its agenda to show that despite lingering ethnic tensions and the scars from wars fought in the 1990s, the region is a priority for the European Union, particularly with Russia seeking to increase its influence there.
Johannes Hahn, commissioner in charge of enlargement, began a visit to Macedonia on Tuesday with a targeted tweet: "EU path open for Skopje after last (EU summit) but clock ticking. Need statesmanship instead of tactics. Economy hurting."
During Hahn's visit, thousands of Macedonians marched in the streets of the capital Skopje to protest at what they regarded as EU meddling in domestic politics.
"We are the hosts the guests should listen to, we are the ones that care for this country," said Bogdan Ilievski, founder of the "For Joint Macedonia" movement that organised the rally.
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 a territorial grab.
But there is also an internal political stand-off over the next government and over Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority.
Hahn met Macedonian party leaders to discuss ways out of the political crisis triggered by a surveillance scandal in 2015 that forced a nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to resign.
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 route to membership of the EU and NATO.
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 support of three ethnic Albanian parties after promising them a law on wider use of the Albanian language, a deal which triggered daily Macedonian nationalist protests in Skopje. President Gjorge Ivanov refused to give a mandate to Zaev to form the government.
"Every day that is lost is lost for Macedonia, for all its citizens," Zaev said after meeting Hahn.
Hahn has not met Ivanov, whose move to block any governing coalition of ethnic Albanian parties and Social Democrats added to the crisis. Ivanov is travelling, his office said on Tuesday in a statement.
"The crisis should be solved by political means, and this political crisis should not be turned into an inter-ethnic crisis," Ali Ahmeti, leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), said after meeting Hahn.
"Everyone should be careful and invest in setting up the institutions so they can function."
(Writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Mark Heinrich)