Macedonia calls Dec. 11 vote to end two-year crisis

SKOPJE (Reuters) - The speaker of Macedonia’s parliament on Tuesday set December 11 as the date for a long-awaited parliamentary election aimed at settling a 20-month crisis that has threatened to destabilize a country already bearing the brunt of Europe’s migration crisis.

Macedonia was thrown into turmoil in February 2015 when the opposition accused then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his counter-intelligence chief of listening in on the phone calls of more than 20,000 people.

Under an EU-brokered agreement to end the crisis, Gruevski stood aside last year to allow for an early election and politicians agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal.

“We are returning our mandate back to the people who are the only, and most legitimate, authority,” speaker Trajko Veljanovski said in a statement. An opposition boycott led to a previous election date of June 5 being scrapped.

Parliament was dissolved on Monday after approving a budget for 2017 targeting economic growth of 2.3 percent and a budget deficit of no more than 3 percent.

Situated on the Balkan route used by many migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Central Asia, Macedonia has struggled to cope with the hundreds of thousands crossing its territory on their way to northern Europe.

Skopje has aspirations of joining the EU and NATO. But accession has been blocked by a dispute over the country’s name with neighboring Greece, which has a province called Macedonia on the other side of their shared border.

Integrating Macedonia and the Western Balkan region into Europe’s political and military security framework is a top priority for the EU, which sees EU and NATO membership as the best guarantee of peace in a region that was torn apart by a series of vicious wars in the 1990s.

Reporting By Kole Casule and Ivana Sekularac, editing by Thomas Escritt and Richard Balmforth