The president of Macedonia pardoned all politicians implicated in a massive corruption and illegal wiretapping scandal, in a surprise move Tuesday that shocked the opposition and triggered protests.
President Gorge Ivanov said he took the action because he wanted to overcome crippling political deadlock, which had spurred the European Union into mediating a deal that included early elections.
"I am using my constitutional authority to help resolve the political crisis," Ivanov said.
With the pardons, Ivanov claimed to have cleared away a mess of accusations and counter-accusations flung over the past 15 months between former prime minister Nikola Gruevski's nationalist VMRO party and the opposition led by Social Democrat Zoran Zaev.
Early last year, Gruevski accused Zaev of trying to blackmail him into resigning. He said that the alleged blackmail material was supplied by a foreign country he did not name.
Zaev responded by revealing batches of what he said were illegal wiretaps that the government made targeting politicians, judges, journalists and many others - all in all, 20,000 people.
Though the pardon clears mostly Gruevski and his allies, VMRO said Ivanov's move was disappoining, saying that it was ready to dismantle the "lies" of the opposition.
The opposition launched demonstrations a few hours after the announcement. Protesters pelted the building of Ivanov's offices with eggs and rocks late Tuesday.
The EU said that the pardons raised "serious concerns."
Elections that the EU mediated in 2015 with the aim of resolving the turmoil were already postponed from April 24 to June 5, but that date is now also in question, as the opposition promised to boycott it, saying that the conditions remain far from fair.
A part of the package mediated by the EU was the formation of a special prosecutor tasked with investigating wiretapping and corruption charges - but the pardon effectively annulled the work done after many delays and amid hampering by Gruevski's
"It is important to support the work of the special prosecutor ... to continue to investigate the serious issues brought forward last year," European Commission foreign policy spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement.
EU's enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who mediated the talks to resolve the crisis in 2015, said that Ivanov's move was "not in line with my understanding of law."
Also within the deal, Gruevski resigned in January to pave the way to elections halfway through his term - he has been in power a full decade and is still believed to control all the levers of power: media, police and the state economy.
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