The prime minister of Macedonia has rejected opposition demands for his resignation to help defuse a political crisis in the Balkan country.
However, Nikola Gruevski said he was ready to accept opposition proposals over the allocation of electoral and ministry posts. He added that such compromises would build confidence in the run-up to an early election, scheduled for April, which the EU sees as critical to wider stability in the region.
“We are ready to accept many ideas that will increase the confidence of the opposition towards the election process,” Mr Gruevski told the Financial Times in an interview.
Tensions in the country of 2m people have ratcheted up since the opposition began in February to release thousands of wiretapped telephone conversations that suggested widespread cronyism, corruption and vote-rigging by senior Macedonian officials.
Brussels has redoubled efforts to broker a political settlement in the EU candidate nation since 18 people were killed in a gun battle between Macedonian forces and members of the minority Albanian population in the town of Kumanovo last month.
Tens of thousands of people, from both the Macedonian and Albanian communities, have taken to the streets to protest against the government.
The government and opposition will meet again in the capital, Skopje, on Monday in talks mediated by the EU and US aimed at resolving entrenched differences about a transitional administration.
Zoran Zaev, opposition leader, told the FT that this was the last chance for Mr Gruevski to ensure a fair election by agreeing to resign before the vote.
“If he remains, nothing changes,” he said. “If we do not succeed in the June 29 talks, then there is no reason for us to continue with the process.”
But Mr Gruevski insisted that he would not step down: “That is not something we agree to . . . It’s the citizens who should say who is in government and who is in opposition.”
The premier, who has been in power for nine years, said he would win a “serious victory” in next year’s election.
EU officials have stressed that the poll will require the “mother of all election observation missions” by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to safeguard against long-running allegations of manipulation of the electoral roll and voter intimidation.
Mr Gruevski countered: “I am inviting all the OSCE monitors in the world to come. The more of them that come, the better for us as we will see that everything will be done in a fair and democratic way.”
Despite his refusal to step down, Mr Gruevski said he was open to the opposition receiving new supervisory roles with veto powers in four of the most powerful ministries: interior, finance, labour and agriculture.
The prime minister also said it would be possible to change the staff on the state electoral committee and give it broader powers.
Mr Gruevski also played down suggestions that the gun battle in Kumanovo could reignite tensions between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, who fought a war in 2001. “We are very, very far from that,” he said.
Ethnic Albanians make up about 30 per cent of the population of the former Yugoslav republic.
Western diplomats agreed that the ethnic dimensions to the crisis were not an immediate concern.
However, they warned that tensions could reignite if the opposition releases a wiretapped phone conversation related to the “monster” murder case from 2012, when six ethnic Albanians were convicted of shooting five ethnic Macedonians near a lake.
Russia has waded into the crisis, accusing western capitals of fomenting a “colour revolution” against Mr Gruevski.
But the prime minister was dismissive of the theory: “What is happening in Macedonia is an internal political crisis, which we are going to resolve at a political level,” he said.