SKOPJE (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Macedonia’s capital on Sunday, waving Macedonian and Albanian flags in a dramatic display of ethnic unity against a government on the ropes after months of damaging wire-tap revelations.
Crowds packed the central avenue in front of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government office, angry over a flood of disclosures that the West says have cast serious doubt on the state of democracy in the former Yugoslav republic.
Police in camouflage uniform were in the basement of the building.
The crisis rocking Gruevski’s nine-year conservative rule is the worst since Western diplomacy dragged the country 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 neighboring 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 monopolizing power in coalition with a party of ethnic Albanian former guerrillas.
Since February, he has faced a wave of 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.
“I locked my shop, packed my things and came to Skopje,” said 45-year-old demonstrator Andrej Poposki from the town of Prilep, 130 km (80 miles) to the south.
“We have to take a stand and confront the criminals. They belong in jail, not in government.”
Protesters carried pictures portraying Gruevski behind bars.
Gruevski has not disputed that the voices on the tapes are genuine but says that he did not order the recordings and that the audio has been doctored. Zaev has been charged with violence against the state.
Zaev says several thousand demonstrators plan to camp out in the streets until the prime minister quits.
Gruevski, his Communist-era government building recently renovated with a white shell of neo-classical pillars and pediments as part of a gaudy city makeover, has refused to do so. He has called his own rally for Monday, stoking fears of a confrontation.
“We came here for our future,” Zaev told the crowds. “I‘m sending a clear message from all of us here, Macedonians, Albanians, Roma ... Gruevski stop stalling, your time is 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 neighborhood left 18 people dead: eight police officers and 10 Albanians described by the government as terrorists.
Gruevski said police had thwarted a terrorist plot, but Albanians and some foreign analysts said the timing suggested the government was trying to create a diversion.
Ethnic Albanians account for some 30 percent of the population. While the two communities live largely separate lives, there is little sign of appetite on either side for a return to conflict.
Sulejman Rushiti, an ethnic Albanian who once served as education minister under Gruevski, joined the protest against what he called “an authoritarian regime”.
“This is the first time I have physically protested together with Macedonians,” he told Reuters.
Weighing in on Saturday, Russia’s foreign ministry accused “Western organizers” of trying to foment revolution against a government that has refused to join European sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and which sits on a potential transit route for Russian gas through Turkey.
Gruevski stood his ground, telling pro-government Sitel TV on Saturday: “If I back down it would be a cowardly move. I’ll face down the attacks.”
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Dominic Evans