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SKOPJE, Macedonia – Thousands of people have been protesting almost nightly in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, since President Gjorge Ivanov announced a decision last week to grant presidential pardons that halted criminal proceedings against dozens of people, including high-ranking politicians, accused in a wiretapping scandal that has roiled Macedonia for months.
In an attempt to resolve the crisis, the country's main political leaders agreed several months ago to hold elections in June, two years ahead of time. But the latest move by the president has reignited the simmering political turmoil.
Here is a look at the developments in Macedonia:
Thousands of people from across the political spectrum have been protesting, and Ivanov's move has also drawn criticism from the European Union, which Macedonia has been hoping to join for years. The protests began in the capital but have spread to other cities, with demonstrators demanding Ivanov's resignation. Last week seven people, including five police officers, were injured and 13 arrested when demonstrations in Skopje turned violent.
WHY DID THE PRESIDENT ISSUE THE PARDONS, AND WHY NOW?
Ivanov has explained his decision as a move to defuse the political crisis before the June 5 election, saying he wants to "defend national interests" and ensure elections are held in an "atmosphere without pressure and blackmailing." He has called for national reconciliation, saying the wiretapping scandal that sparked the crisis "has resulted in endless (acts) of hatred and recrimination." But critics at home and abroad view the step as an attempt to prevent politicians from being brought to justice.
WHAT IS THE WIRETAPPING SCANDAL?
Last year, opposition leader Zoran Zaev alleged that the governing conservatives, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, had illegally wiretapped about 20,000 people, including judges, police, politicians, foreign diplomats and journalists. He regularly released sound recordings of what he said were the wiretaps, saying they were passed to him by a whistleblower. Gruevski strenuously denied he had anything to do with the taps, and accused Zaev of plotting a coup to overthrow his government.
The leaked conversations appeared to show corruption at the highest level, triggering investigations against government officials, including former ministers of the interior and transportation. They deny the charges.
In an attempt to resolve the ensuing political crisis, the country's top politicians agreed to an EU-brokered deal under which Gruevski stepped down, paving the way for June's elections. A special prosecution office was also formed under the deal, to look into allegations of wrongdoing.
WHO HAS BEEN CHARGED, WITH WHAT, AND WHY?
The government gazette has published a list of 56 people who benefit from the presidential pardon, but doesn't specify what charges they faced. Among them are Gruevski, who stepped down in January as part of the political deal, and Zaev. The list also includes former Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, transportation minister Mile Janakievski and former intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov. Former Macedonian president Branko Crvenkovski as well as mayors, businessmen, a judge and prosecutors are also on the list. Many of them — including Gruevski, Mijalkov, Zaev and Crvenkovski, have said they don't accept the pardon and have asked for it to be revoked for them so they can clear their names in court.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Ivanov has insisted he will not revoke the pardons. But 80 groups organizing the protests say they will continue their demonstrations demanding his resignation, the postponement of the early elections and a caretaker government to be formed to prepare for free and fair elections.
Even Ivanov's own VMRO-DPMNE party, as well as the opposition Social Democrats, has said it wants the criminal investigations to continue. "Our position is clear, everybody who committed crimes has to be punished," VMRO said.
WILL THIS AFFECT THE ELECTIONS?
It might. The elections were originally scheduled for April 24, but the date was postponed after the opposition complained the main conditions for a free and fair vote were not met. The Social Democrats have said they will boycott the election because they say those conditions — including ensuring an up-to-date voter registry, preventing intimidation and the pressuring of voters, and ensuring fair media coverage — have still not been met. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who mediated the talks, has warned Macedonia's leaders that "if they do not work together and not stay focused to have free elections, the new government will not be internationally accepted."
The opposition Social Democrats say the deal is "buried" because it failed to secure free and fair elections. On the other hand, the governing conservative VMRO-DPMNE insists elections must be held on the agreed June 5 date.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MACEDONIA?
This is one more step back for Macedonia's hopes to join the European Union and NATO. Apart from the deep political crisis, the country has also struggled to cope with being on the refugee route, with about a million people transiting through its territory. Macedonia has had EU candidacy status since 2005 and was invited to join NATO in 2008, but was blocked by neighboring Greece because of a dispute over the name "Macedonia," which Greece sees as representing territorial claims over its own province of the same name.