April 28, 2017 / 3:35 PM / 2 years ago

Bloodied Macedonian leftist expects to form government despite protests

SKOPJE (Reuters) - A day after protesters stormed Macedonia’s parliament and left him with blood running down his face, Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev said on Friday he was confident of forming a government despite vehement opposition from nationalists.

Macedonian Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev and members of his party attend a news conference in Skopje, Macedonia, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

More that 100 people were injured on Thursday night in clashes inside and outside parliament over the election of an ethnic Albanian as speaker of the assembly. One lawmaker was taken to hospital, and police used stun grenades to disperse protesters and evacuate MPs.

NATO and the European Union condemned the violence, which deepened the worst crisis in the Balkan country since it narrowly averted an ethnic civil war in 2001. Germany blamed the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party and said any repeat could doom Macedonia’s hopes of joining the EU.

“What the former governing party in Macedonia and their supporters did last night is not only unacceptable but it is also the same as shutting the door to the EU if it happens again,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Acts of violence like those we saw yesterday must not be allowed to happen again.”

After elections in the former Yugoslav republic in December, Zaev put together a coalition agreement with two parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up a third of the population.

The deal envisages a law allowing wider use of the Albanian language, and this has triggered daily street protests by nationalists.

Despite strong opposition, Zaev and his coalition partners elected ethnic Albanian Talat Xhaferi as speaker on Thursday. Protesters responded by bursting into the parliament building and assaulting Zaev and others.

Zaev told reporters on Friday he expected the speaker to assume his duties and send a letter to notify the president of the new majority.

“After that I expect to receive the mandate to form the government,” he said, sporting a band-aid on his forehead. Two other MPs standing behind him had bandages on their heads.

President Gjorge Ivanov has so far refused to award a mandate to Zaev, saying the proposed coalition threatened the sovereignty of Macedonia.

Macedonia has been without a functioning government since 2015, when it sank into political turmoil over a wiretapping scandal that brought down the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party bloc.

Efforts to move towards membership of the EU and NATO have made little headway because of a dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s name, which it shares with a northern Greek province.

The EU has been increasingly alarmed in recent months about growing instability in the Balkans. The bloc’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said the violence in Macedonia was “particularly worrying” and the crisis “dangerous”.

Heading to meet EU ministers in Malta, Macedonia’s interim Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said: “I don’t think that less integration of Macedonia into the European Union is the right answer. I would claim quite the opposite.”

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Tom Koerkemeier in VALETTA; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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