Macedonian president withholds mandate from opposition chief

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SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's president withheld the mandate to form a government Wednesday from the runner-up in December's elections, accusing left-wing leader Zoran Zaev of jeopardizing the country's sovereignty.

Further complicating the country's festering political crisis, President Gjorge Ivanov took issue with the demand by Zaev's potential coalition partners, minority ethnic Albanian parties, to make Albanian Macedonia's second official language.

Ethnic Albanians comprise a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million people, and the minority population's relations with the majority Macedonians have been tense at times. The country narrowly avoided civil war in 2001 after an uprising by armed ethnic Albanian groups seeking greater rights.

The president said he would not give the mandate to "a person or party whose program advocates the destruction of (Macedonia's) sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence."

Zaev slammed the decision as a "coup d'état."

His Social Democrats want to govern with three ethnic Albanian parties, who insist on the language designation. Albanian already enjoys official language status in minority-dominated areas.

The demand led to the collapse of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski's attempt to form a coalition with the Albanian parties. Gruevski's conservatives placed first in the December election, but fell short of a majority.

Thousands of Macedonians have held protests over the past three days in the capital Skopje and other major cities against the ethnic Albanian parties' demands.

The election was held two years early as part of international efforts to overcome a political crisis triggered by a massive wiretapping scandal that targeted more than 20,000 members of Macedonia's judiciary, police, journalists and foreign diplomats.

Zaev blamed Gruevski, who denied involvement and attributed the wiretaps to unspecified foreign spies.

At a press conference Wednesday, Zaev accused Ivanov of ignoring the will of the people and sparking a constitutional crisis.

"Ivanov is ushering Macedonia into a deep crisis with unforeseeable consequences for the citizens and the state," he said, appealing to Macedonians to remain calm.

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