Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, Tuesday to protest a visit by a European Union envoy who is trying to break the political deadlock that has left the country without a government for three months.
Waving red-and-yellow national flags, the protesters chanted “Macedonia! Macedonia!” – as EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn held talks with political leaders.
Protest organizers said they were holding rallies at 42 sites around the country, and unfurled giant banners along the route taken by Hahn from the airport to the capital.
Macedonia’s two largest parties do not have enough lawmakers to form a government after a general election in December.
They would need to form a coalition with one party from the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, which is demanding that Albanian be made the country’s second official language.
The long-governing conservatives rejected the minority demand outright. Conservative President Gjorge Ivanov, however, has refused to hand the rival Social Democrats a mandate to form a government until they do the same.
Ivanov, who did not meet with Hahn, argues that the language demand is an attempt to destroy Macedonia’s character.
Supporting Ivanov’s tough line, demonstrators have gathered regularly for the past three weeks, and organizers said that a crowd of 50,000 rallied in Skopje Tuesday _ a number not immediately confirmed by authorities.
“We’ve had enough of commissioners,” Bogdan Ilievski, a protest organizer, said. “The language we all understand is Macedonian and the [minority demand] is only aimed at breaking up the country. That’s why we won’t allow it to become the policy of any government.”
Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia’s population. Albanian is currently recognized as an official language in minority-dominated areas but not in the country as a whole.
Macedonia has been locked in a major political crisis for the past two years, sparked by a wiretapping scandal and corruption allegations.