World

Macedonia's Zaev wins confidence vote to form new government

Macedonia's parliament elected a new center-left coalition government led by former opposition leader Zoran Zaev late Wednesday, ending a six-month political stalemate.

Lawmakers voted 62-44 just before midnight to confirm a 26-member Cabinet proposed by Zaev, who leads the Social Democrat party. Five lawmakers abstained and nine were absent.

Zaev, 42, was sworn in as prime minister by the parliament speaker immediately after the vote.

The businessman and former mayor of Strumica formed an alliance with two small ethnic Albanian parties to control 62 of parliament's 120 seats, after his party finished second in December elections that produced a hung parliament. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's conservative party won the elections but fell short of a parliamentary majority.

About a quarter of Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian, and inter-ethnic tensions brought the former Yugoslav republic close to civil war in 2001.

"The concept of one society for all is the future of Macedonia," Zaev said Wednesday, rejecting opponents' criticism that his pledge to consider enhancing the Albanian minority's standing would undermine Macedonia's sovereignty.

Under the coalition deal, nine Cabinet portfolios are held by ethnic Albanians, including the economy, justice and European integration posts.

The country has been roiled by political crisis since early 2015, sparked by a wiretapping scandal that left Zaev's party and Gruevski's formerly governing VMRO-DPMNE conservatives with irreconcilable differences.

Zaev has pledged to focus on the economy, strengthening public institutions and joining the European Union and NATO. He wants to start negotiations with the EU and NATO as soon as possible.

Macedonia was granted EU candidate status in 2005. Neighboring Greece has blocked Macedonia's accession to NATO due to a long-running dispute regarding Macedonia's name, and the Greeks also have raised objections to its joining the EU.

Zaev tapped Nikola Dimitrov, a former negotiator with Greece, as foreign minister. Radmila Sekjerinska, a former minister for European integration, was named to head the defense ministry.

President Gjorge Ivanov earlier had refused to give the mandate to Zaev, accusing him of endangering Macedonia's unity and sovereignty.

The crisis threatened to re-ignite inter-ethnic conflict, with ethnic Albanian parties demanding as a condition for joining any new government that Albanian be designated a second official language. A month of protests followed across the country.

A mob stormed the parliament building last month after disagreements about the election of a new parliament speaker, leaving more than 100 people injured.