Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said he would submit his resignation today (15 January) under a European Union-brokered deal for an early parliamentary election to defuse months of political crisis.
But the conservative leader made clear his departure would only be effective once the election is officially called.
Gruevski survived a torrid 2015 in which the opposition released a slew of phone-taps that they said exposed extensive government control over journalists and judges, meddling in elections and the appointment of party faithful to public sector jobs. Gruevski denied his government was behind the phone-taps and dismissed the allegations as a plot.
Almost a decade in power, Gruevski agreed to step down 100 days before an election that the EU brokered for 24 April. But the poll has yet to be officially called, and the opposition Social Democrats have suggested they may want it postponed, arguing not all the conditions of the EU-mediated deal have been fulfilled.
“Tomorrow, to the speaker of parliament, I will submit my resignation letter, effective 100 days before the official date of the election,” said Gruevski.
But, he said, “recent statements by the SDSM (opposition Social Democrats) cast a shadow over this part of the agreement. This is a trap to keep our country hostage to the crisis.”
EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, who mediated the deal last year, is due in Skopje on Friday.
Analysts say Gruevski’s determination for the election to go ahead as planned indicates he is confident his VMRO-DPMNE party will win again.
His critics accuse Gruevski of presiding over an increasingly authoritarian government that has burnished nationalism among Macedonians in the absence of any progress towards membership of the EU or NATO, a process held hostage to a long-running dispute with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia’s name.
The government has dismissed the criticism.
Macedonia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.
Integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war. The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the ethnic-Albanian communities (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called "name dispute" with Greece appears to be the biggest. Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece pledged to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
Greece also believes that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria contends that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman rule.
Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.