makedonija, zastava.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Zé Valdi, used under CC BY-SA

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski stepped down Friday under an EU-brokered agreement with the opposition, paving the way for early elections in April.

Parliament speaker Trajko Veljanoski said that he formally received the premier's resignation letter, state TV MRT reported.

The conservative Gruevski made his move on the deadline set in a political agreement brokered by the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn in June 2015 in a bid to end a dangerous blockade that has threatened stability in the volatile country and region.

Gruevski will be replaced by close ally and high-ranking official of the VMRO party, Emil Dimitriev. The government will have the task to prepare elections on April 24, two years early.

Hahn also returns to Skopje Friday to pressure leaders of the four main parties to stick to the agreed timetable, including holding elections as planned.

Gruevski and his Social Democratic archrival Zoran Zaev, as well as the two largest parties stemming from the sizeable ethnic Albanian minority, agreed a series of steps preceding the scheduling of the elections.

The deal led to the return of Zaev's Social Democrats, ending a boycott of the parliament they launched on the night of the April 2014 elections, amid allegations that Gruevski's nationalist VMRO party manipulated the vote. 

Most of the agreed moves, such as the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Zaev's allegations of Gruevski's corruption, were late by weeks.

Zaev and the SDSM now warn that fair elections are impossible in April, singling out the problem of the faulty voter registry that has not been overhauled in time.

Gruevski, however, insists that if elections are not held on the agreed date, he will call the whole deal off.

The VMRO, a centre-right party that has shifted toward nationalism in recent years, won elections in 2006, 2008 and 2011. 

One of six former Yugoslav republics, Macedonia was on the verge of civil war in 2001, when the Albanians, making up 25-30 per cent of the population, rebelled for more rights.

NATO and EU defused the conflict by brokering reforms the Albanians wanted, but the country remains volatile, with the population sharply polarized politically and ethnically.

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