Macedonia premier to step down under Western-brokered deal

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SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's prime minister has confirmed he will step down Friday before an early election on April 24, under the timeline of last year's Western-brokered deal to solve a deep political crisis triggered by a wiretapping scandal.

Nikola Gruevski said in a televised address to the nation late Thursday that he will present his resignation to the speaker of Parliament. He also insisted that the parliamentary election must be held on schedule 100 days after he steps down, despite opposition pressure for a delay.

Gruevski, who has governed for almost 10 years, has agreed to hand over to a candidate from his conservative VMRO-DPMNE party who will head a caretaker government. Last July's deal with the country's social-democrat main opposition followed mediation by the European Union and the U.S.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn is due in Macedonia on Friday for talks with Gruevski and opposition leaders on implementing the agreement.

Hahn said Friday remains a key deadline.

"I expect that the outstanding elements of the political agreement will be resolved before or during my visit, allowing the election authorities to organize credible elections according to the agreed timetable," he said.

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev has challenged the April date for an early election, claiming that crucial parts of the agreement meant to guarantee fair elections, such as revising the electoral roll and media reforms, aren't yet in place.

VMRO-DPMNE said that if the election is postponed, the deal is off and the caretaker government won't be formed.

The political crisis stems from opposition allegations that the government illegally wire-tapped 20,000 people, including police, judges, journalists and foreign diplomats.

Zaev says the conversations allegedly reveal corruption at the highest level of government, including mismanagement of funds, electoral fraud and spurious criminal prosecutions of political opponents.

The government denies the claims. Gruevski says the recordings were fabricated with the help of foreign spies, and has accused Zaev of plotting a coup.

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