Macedonia's ex-PM readying for poll despite boycotts

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Skopje (AFP) - Macedonia's former and possible next prime minister Nikola Gruevski says his party is preparing to stand in an early election next month despite a boycott by his opponents and international disapproval.

Gruevski, who stepped down in January after 10 years in power to make way for the vote, told AFP late Friday that the troubled Balkan country could now face two general elections in coming months.

Parliament was dissolved in April as part of an EU-brokered deal to end a national political crisis and street protests, but Gruevski's conservative VMRO-DPMNE was the only major party to register candidates for the June 5 poll.

His rivals have declared a boycott, saying conditions for a free and fair vote have not been met.

"We are in a very unpleasant situation now, the only (one) of the four big political parties which is going to the elections," Gruevski said in English in an exclusive interview at his imposing party headquarters in downtown Skopje.

If the vote goes ahead next month as he expects, Gruevski said his party would be "immediately ready" after a new parliament is formed to go to yet another election and "give citizens the chance to choose".

"We want a deserved victory," the 45-year-old said.

Described by critics as a corrupt authoritarian who has clamped down on media freedom, human rights and democracy, opinion polls nevertheless suggest Gruevski maintains strong support among Macedonia's two million people.

- No way out -

Earlier Friday opposition leader Zoran Zaev told AFP he was confident the election would be postponed until fairer conditions were in place.

But Gruevski said he saw no way of avoiding the vote following parliament's dissolution.

"Generally the international community is not in favour of elections on 5th June," but nobody has come up with a "constitutional way to postpone this," he explained.

The former economist and amateur boxer spoke after a special envoy from Germany, Johannes Haindl, visited Skopje to try to help resolve the deadlock.

The prospect of back-to-back elections comes as Macedonia wrestles with twin crises: domestic political turmoil and thousands of migrants blocked on its border with Greece.

Gruevski warned that his landlocked nation, one of Europe's poorest and not a member of the EU or NATO, was struggling to fund security at its southern frontier.

"The country is less and less able to directly finance the cost for the policemen, the soldiers, and equipment for them," he said, describing military budgets as "exhausted."

- Wiretap scandal -

The domestic crisis erupted in February last year, when Zaev began releasing tapes that appeared to reveal official wiretapping of 20,000 Macedonians, including politicians and journalists, and high-level corruption.

Gruevski dismissed the material as mostly "created and fabricated and edited."

But the scandal sparked major protests both for and against his government, leading the European Union to step in and mediate a deal last summer.

According to the pact an election was supposed to be held in April, but this was postponed until June owing to opposition concerns about fraud.

Deepening the crisis, President Gjorge Ivanov last month unexpectedly halted a probe into more than 50 public figures suspected of involvement in the wiretapping scandal -- including his ally Gruevski -- granting a mass pardon to those implicated.

This sparked further protests and international condemnation.

Anti-Gruevksi rallies, dubbed the "Colourful Revolution", continue to draw a few thousand protesters each evening in Skopje.

Their tactics include hurling bright paint at neoclassical government buildings and monuments, which are part of a costly and controversial makeover of the capital.

Defiant Gruevski remains confident of his support and insists he was "surprised" by the pardons. "I know the perception from outside... but time will say who is right and who is not."

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