SKOPJE (Reuters) - Political leaders in Macedonia pledged on Thursday to avoid unrest, following Western-observed talks that yielded no way out of a political impasse threatening to destabilize the ex-Yugoslav republic.
Political tensions are building ahead of an opposition rally on Sunday to demand that conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski resign over wire-tap disclosures this year that appear to point to widespread abuse of office by senior government officials.
The government says a foreign espionage service conducted the wire-taps and their content had been doctored. The state prosecutor has charged opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who called the protest, with trying to topple the government.
The standoff has already boiled over once into street clashes, raising concern over the stability of the impoverished Balkan state 14 years after NATO and EU diplomacy pulled it from the brink of all-out civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency.
Gruevski met Zaev and the two leaders of the main ethnic Albanian parties in government and opposition, Ali Ahmeti and Menduh Thaci, at what a senior government official said was the initiative of western countries.
The ambassadors of the United States and European Union were also present.
Following several hours of talks, the four politicians issued a joint statement pledging support for "democratic values, including the right to peaceful protest and to condemn violence."
They said the dialogue would continue, but Zaev insisted there was no backtracking on the opposition demand that Gruevski step down.
He said they had discussed a framework for a political dialogue to resolve the crisis. Asked if he was optimistic, Zaev replied: "I'm not an optimist."
Deepening impressions of a country on the brink, a police raid on an ethnic Albanian neighborhood in northern Macedonia last weekend left 22 people dead – 14 ethnic Albanians described by the government as "terrorists" and eight police officers.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and Macedonia's intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov resigned, saying they hoped the move would help end the crisis. The two have been at the center of the wire-tap scandal.
Gruevski's conservative VMRO-DPMNE party offered on Wednesday to create an ad hoc parliamentary committee to probe the allegations of wrongdoing. Its condition was that the Social Democrats end a boycott of parliament in force since a 2014 election that Zaev says was rigged.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Heneghan