EU urges Macedonia to drop block on 'Albanian language row' government

SKOPJE (Reuters) - The EU on Thursday asked Macedonia’s president to reverse a move to block a coalition including ethnic Albanian parties from forming a government, urging political leaders to step back from a dispute that risked sparking conflict.

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President Gjorge Ivanov on Wednesday refused to give his backing to the coalition of Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties, arguing its pledge to allow wider official use of the Albanian language amounted to foreign interference in Macedonia’s affairs.

After meeting Ivanov and other political leaders in Skopje, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged him to reconsider. Hours earlier Russia criticized the coalition deal.

“I asked the president to reflect on the way forward to reverse his decision in the interest of all citizens,” Mogherini told a news conference.

Macedonia should “scale down the rhetoric (to) avoid that this political and institutional crisis becomes an inter-ethnic conflict or even worse a geopolitical conflict.”

Relations between the country’s Macedonians - who are Orthodox Christians - and ethnic Albanians - who are mostly Muslim - have long been fraught. Macedonia went to the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001 before EU and U.S. diplomacy helped broker a peace deal.

Two years ago the country was thrown into a political turmoil over a wiretapping scandal that brought down nationalist prime minister Nikola Gruevski.

Ivanov said he would not revoke his decision, calling the coalition deal a threat to Macedonia’s “sovereignty, unity and independence.”

Both the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and Gruevski also oppose Zaev’s deal, which this week drew thousands of protesters onto the streets of Skopje and other Macedonain cities.

The Social Democrats won 49 seats in a snap election in December, two fewer than the VMRO-DPMNE. The result left neither able to form a government without parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up a third of the population.

Earlier on Thursday Russia accused Albania, NATO and the European Union of trying to impose a pro-Albanian government on the former Yugoslav Republic.

Following December’s vote, leaders of ethnic Albanian parties traveled to Tirana and agreed a joint platform for negotiating with a coalition including demanding wider use of Albanian language.

Macedonia aspires to join NATO and EU, but its integration is stalled over a name dispute with neighboring Greece.

Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by John Stonestreet