May 12, 2015 / 7:54 PM / 2 years ago

Two top allies of embattled Macedonian prime minister quit

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia’s interior minister and its powerful intelligence chief resigned on Tuesday, apparently sacrificed by embattled Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to save his government from months of damaging wire-tap disclosures.

Saso Mijalkov (L), the head of Macedonian counter-intelligence, walks by the coffin of killed policeman Sasho Samoilovski inside a church in the town of Tetovo, Macedonia May 10, 2015. Macedonia's embattled prime minister removed his interior minister and head of counter-intelligence on Tuesday, the state news agency MIA reported, in what appeared to be a major concession to the opposition over a damaging surveillance scandal. Picture taken May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Gruevski’s conservative government is increasingly on the ropes over opposition allegations of authoritarianism and abuse of power stemming from dozens of taped phone conversations released to the media by opposition leader Zoran Zaev.

Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov, Gruevski’s cousin, are at the centre of the storm; their resignations appeared designed to appease protesters who say they will take to the streets on Sunday to demand the prime minister’s resignation.

The move did not immediately appear linked to the deaths at the weekend of 22 people – 14 ethnic Albanians the government described as “terrorists” and eight police officers – in a police raid on an ethnic Albanian neighbourhood in the northern town of Kumanovo.

Mijalkov, in a resignation letter, said he hoped his departure would “help in overcoming the political crisis imposed by the opposition ... in the knowledge that the truth and arguments are on our side.”

Jankulovska wrote that “in these difficult days” she also believed her resignation would help bring the crisis to an end.

The political standoff, which has already once boiled over into clashes between police and protesters in the capital Skopje, has raised concern in the West over the stability of Macedonia, which narrowly avoided all-out civil war in 2001 during fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

The impoverished ex-Yugoslav republic is a candidate for membership of the European Union. But its EU and NATO accession are blocked by a long-running dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s name, feeding into widespread frustration over poverty, unemployment and corruption.

Opposition leader Zaev says a whistleblower leaked to him a mountain of illegal government wire-taps and has been drip-feeding tapes to the media since late January. If authentic, the tapes appear to point to extensive government control over journalists and judges, meddling in elections and the appointment of party faithful to public sector jobs.

On Monday, after meeting Gruevski, Western ambassadors in Skopje said the government’s failure to investigate the disclosures cast “serious doubt” on its commitment to European democratic principles and values.

Gruevski says the surveillance was conducted by a foreign spy service, using Zaev in a plot to topple his government. Zaev has been charged with “violence” against the state.

Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Dominic Evans and Lisa Shumaker

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