SKOPJE, Macedonia – Tens of thousands of people gathered at two rival protests in Macedonia's capital on Thursday as a political crisis deepened in the tiny Balkan state after the country's president pardoned dozens of politicians who were facing criminal proceedings for alleged involvement in a wiretapping scandal.
President Gjorge Ivanov last week issued pardons for politicians, including former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and opposition leader Zoran Zaev, before a June 5 early election. The move has reignited simmering political turmoil and prompted daily protests.
The 80 groups organizing the anti-government protests demand that the president revoke the decision and to step down. They are also calling for the postponement of the early election and the formation of a caretaker government to prepare for a free and fair vote.
On the other side, tens of thousands of government supporters protested in front of the parliament building in Skopje, urging for the early vote to go ahead.
Riot police deployed in downtown Skopje separated the two groups. Protests were also held in five other Macedonian towns. The protests ended peacefully.
Senior EU officials say talks between Macedonian political leaders and EU mediators planned for Friday in Vienna on solving the Balkan nation's political crisis have been canceled.
A joint statement issued by EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn and three other EU parliament members who were set to mediate the talks says the planned meeting in Vienna "could not take place."
Opposition leader Zoran Zaev had made Ivanov revoking the pardons a condition of the EU-led talks, as well as the postponement of the early June 5 election.
The EU said that "persisting rule of law issues must be addressed without any further delay."