DDMA Headline Animator

Friday, April 22, 2016

Sudan: Student Strike Into Third Day in Sudan's Capital

20 April 2016

Khartoum — The strike by the students of the University of Khartoum, in protest against a government decision to move faculties to the outskirts of the city, is now into its third consecutive day. All classes have been suspended as lecturers and professors have joined in solidarity with the students.

The strikers demand the release of the students who were detained during the demonstrations over the past week. They also continue to protest the sale of university premises, ostensibly "to make way for tourist attractions".

A student from the University of Khartoum told Radio Dabanga that classes have been halted at all the faculties because of the sit-in and explained that university professors have taken-up the strike in solidarity with the students.

The student added that on Tuesday, in the medical complex, students carried out a sit-in inside the compound buildings demanding the release of the detained students.

He said that on Monday, the security forces arrested students Sharafuldin Adam and Mohammed Saleh Abdul Raheem and took them to an unknown destination.

He added that the arrest of the students came against the backdrop of the Darfuri students association organizing of political gathering at the University of El Nilain to speak out about the current political situation in Darfur.

The Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) in Khartoum announced that the head of the party in Khartoum North Locality, Abdul Rahman Mahdi, was subjected to an attempted attack by an unidentified vehicle in Shambat on Monday evening. In a statement on Tuesday. The SCP explained that the attempted attack was by a truck without plates. The Party considered that as "representing a new phase in the authorities' confrontation with the opposition in the country".

Source: allAfrica.
Link: http://allafrica.com/stories/201604210467.html.

Malaysia decides not to send Taiwanese suspects to China

April 15, 2016

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia deported 20 Taiwanese criminal suspects to Taiwan on Friday despite Beijing's request that they be sent to China, amid an ongoing battle over jurisdiction involving the self-ruled island. A Malaysia official said another 32 Taiwanese suspects sought by China also will be sent to Taiwan.

A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry statement said the 20 suspects, who were detained on suspicion of committing wire fraud, had boarded a plane bound for Taiwan on Friday. Malaysian officials had delayed the flight, saying they were awaiting legal approval, but the Taiwanese foreign ministry said the plane was allowed to take off late Friday afternoon.

Taiwan's statement Friday evening said its officials were actively engaged in talks to pressure Malaysia to allow another remaining 32 suspects to be deported to Taiwan for investigation. Later Friday, a Malaysian government official said the country has decided "to send the suspects back to their respective countries to be dealt with accordingly." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

The latest battle over Taiwanese deportations came after Kenya sent 45 Taiwanese suspects to China instead of Taiwan. Beijing wants to investigate them for defrauding victims in China by posing as police officers and insurance agents over the phone in order to obtain banking details.

China claims jurisdiction in such cases where the victims are Chinese, and says the perpetrators aren't given due punishment when they are returned to Taiwan. The Malaysian official said a total of 120 foreigners — 68 from China and 52 from Taiwan — were detained last month in connection with a scam. He said two masterminds from China were deported April 13.

China then requested for all the remaining 118 to be sent to the mainland, on grounds that the scam involved 600 victims in China, the official said. The official said China reiterated its request to Malaysia on Friday after the 20 Taiwanese were deported to Taiwan. But he said Malaysia, which has no extradition treaty with China or Taiwan, is not obliged to accede to Beijing's request.

Taiwan has protested that Kenya violated the legal process and accused Beijing of violating a tacit agreement not to interfere in each side's citizens' legal affairs abroad. A Taiwanese delegation is expected in Beijing soon to negotiate the matter.

Some see China's moves as attempting to assert its claims to sovereignty over the island and legal authority over its residents. The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and China has long sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically by preventing it from maintaining formal ties with most countries, including Malaysia and Kenya. China's economic cloud lends it political influence.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has covered the Kenya deportations extensively, with suspects shown being led from the plane in prison smocks with bags over their heads. Others were shown in front of police and television cameras confessing to their crimes and apologizing to their victims.

Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and video journalist Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

Iraqi forces reclaim Islamic State-held town of Hit

By Amy R. Connolly
April 15, 2016

BAGHDAD, April 15 (UPI) -- Iraqi forces reclaimed the city of Hit from the Islamic State, taking back the last IS stronghold in that region and severing an important IS supply route between Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service spokesman Sabah al-Noman said the city "is cleared of any Daesh gunmen," using another name for the militant group. It is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Coalition forces have been fighting to recapture the city, located about 90 miles outside Baghdad, since March. Forces entered Hit on April 4 after recapturing the nearby city of Kubaysah.

Backed by U.S. airpower and using a single M1 Abrams tank, nicknamed "The Beast," forces killed IS militants. The American-made tank tore through IS fighting positions, destroying vehicles and improvised explosive devices.

Coalition forces conducted four airstrikes, hitting three IS tactical units. The strikes destroyed four machine gun positions and IS equipment that included a boat and boat dock.

"The joint forces had inflicted heavy human and material losses on ISIS gangs," officials said.

Thousands of people fled the city in October 2014 when the IS moved in. Forces are now preparing to recapture Fallujah, the second largest city in the province and Mosul.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/04/15/Iraqi-forces-reclaim-Islamic-State-held-town-of-Hit/6151460713284/.

Iraq PM delivers new cabinet list, angering some MPs

By Ammar Karim and Salam Faraj
Baghdad (AFP)
April 12, 2016

Iraq's premier presented a new list of cabinet nominees on Tuesday that angered some lawmakers, who criticized it as perpetuating the system of ministries being distributed according to political quotas.

Parliament descended into chaos after the session was postponed to Thursday, with lawmakers shaking fists and chanting against political quotas and then beginning a sit-in.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for a government of technocrats to replace the current party-affiliated ministers, but has faced major resistance from powerful parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.

He presented a list of 13 cabinet nominees to parliament on March 31, but lawmakers later said that the political blocs would nominate other candidates, a process that apparently resulted in the current list of names.

Abadi gave the new list of candidates to parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, then met with him and leaders of the political blocs, according to posts on their official Twitter accounts.

But with major disagreement over the proposed list of candidates, the session was postponed until Thursday, Juburi's office said.

Lawmakers chanted "The people want the fall of the quotas!" after the session ended, according to video shot inside parliament.

The phrase is a variation on "The people want the fall of the regime", which was chanted at Arab Spring protests against despots across the region.

More than 100 MPs then began a sit-in inside parliament to protest against the delay of the session, lawmakers Haider al-Kaabi and Iskander Witwit told AFP by telephone.

"We announced an open sit-in inside parliament because of the postponement of the session until Thursday," Kaabi said, adding that they are demanding an emergency session on Wednesday.

According to the new list of 14 names, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, most of Abadi's original nominees did not make the second cut.

The nominees for water resources, health and transport stayed the same, while a fourth nominee from the original list became a candidate for the planning ministry.

- 'Ministries for them' -

The new list also includes Faleh al-Fayad, a long-time member of the Dawa party who served as national security adviser under former premier Nuri al-Maliki and then Abadi, as the nominee for foreign minister.

Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Juburi said that the new list is opposed by almost a third of MPs.

The MP said he had gathered 98 names of lawmakers who are against the list and who reject the "principle of (political) quotas that was agreed upon by the leaders of the blocs".

"The blocs and the parties do not want to give up their gains and their ministries," said Shiite MP Hassan Salem.

"They do not consider them ministries of the people as much as they consider them ministries for them," Salem said.

And MP Zainab al-Tai, from the bloc affiliated with powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for a government of technocrats, threatened a no-confidence vote in Abadi.

"We demand the formation of an independent government, and if not, we will go to withdraw confidence from Abadi's government," Tai said.

Abadi called in February for "fundamental" change to the cabinet so that it includes "professional and technocratic figures and academics".

That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.

Sadr, the scion of a powerful clerical family from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, later called for his supporters to protest and then stage a sit-in at Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.

Sadr relented after Abadi presented his list of nominees at the end of March, calling off the sit-in.

But efforts to change the government have run up against entrenched political interests that do not want to cede the power and funds that controlling ministries confers.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_PM_delivers_new_cabinet_list_angering_some_MPs_999.html.

Displaced Sunnis from Salahadin complain they can’t return to their homes

By Rudaw

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Some 1,500 Sunni families complain that the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias are preventing them from returning to their homes in Salahadin province that have been liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).

"Our areas (in Salahadin province) have been liberated from ISIS for almost a year and seven months, but there is not even a glimmer of hope of returning to our homes because the Iraqi government is fighting a sectarian war with us,” an elderly Sunni man based at the Lailan refugee camp in Kirkuk, claimed to Rudaw.

At least 7,500 displaced people live in miserable conditions at the Lailan refugee camp, complaining that they do not have money even to by the most basic foods.

"If anyone has the money to buy even a kilo of tomatoes, they can survive. But those who can’t are left to begging,” said another displaced person at the camp, complaining that there are no facilities at the camp, which is “drowning in filth.”

Salahadin province has been cleared of ISIS for more than 18 months. During the militants’ sway over the province, hundreds of thousands of residents fled to other Iraqi cities, many to Kirkuk.

Refugees who fled are now living in refugee camps, where they complain there are no schools, work, healthcare or clean water.  The refugees call on the Shiite militia, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, to allow them return to their lands.

"The Iraqi government has not aided us, now we only want to return to our areas. We do not want anything else,” said one refugee.

Provincial authorities in Kirkuk have thrice urged Baghdad to help return the displaced people to their homes, but the central government has not made any move.

An estimated 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in central and southern Iraq have taken shelter in the north, most in the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

Source: Rudaw.
Link: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/12042016.

30 years after blast, labor to clean Chernobyl's traces

April 20, 2016

CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR POWER STATION, Ukraine (AP) — Thirty years after the world's worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl power plant is surrounded by both desolation and clangorous activity, the sense of a ruined past and a difficult future.

The plant is derelict. After the No. 4 reactor exploded in the early-morning hours of April 26, 1986, its other reactors were gradually taken out of service and the sprawling complex hasn't produced a watt of electricity since 2000. Just a few hundred meters (yards) away from the hulk, hundreds of workers labor to construct a vast and remarkable structure that is to be the first step in removing the tons of radioactive waste that remain.

The 2-billion-euro ($2.3 billion) New Safe Confinement project, funded by international donations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is a race against time — though, unsettlingly, how much time can't be known. After the explosion and the fire that spewed a cloud of fallout over much of northern Europe, Soviet workers constructed a so-called sarcophagus over the reactor building, a concrete and steel structure aimed at keeping waste from escaping into the atmosphere.

The rush-job construction, completed in just five months, was designed to last only about 30 years and has shown signs of serious deterioration. When the new structure, which resembles a 30-story Quonset hut, is finished, it is to be slowly moved on rails over the sarcophagus and reactor building. After that, robotic machinery inside the structure will begin dismantling the sarcophagus and the destroyed reactor and gather up the wastes to be transported to a nearby storage facility. Under current plans, that process is expected to begin in 2017.

"The arch is now at its full height, full width and full length — 108 meters (354 feet) tall, 250 meters wide and 150 meters long. It will act as a safe confinement over the No. 4 reactor, and it's planned to last 100 years ... to give Ukraine a chance to dismantle the No. 4 reactor and make it safe forever," said David Driscoll, director of safety for the French consortium Novarka that is building the shelter.

Not far away from the shelter project, the growl of heavy vehicles and the clatter of construction tools fade in the silence enveloping the ghost town of Pripyat. Four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the power plant, Pripyat was built for the plant's workers. Opened in 1970, it was a model of the Soviet ideal — orderly blocks of soaring apartment towers, the focal point a large plaza flanked by a sizable hotel and the Energetik Palace of Culture. The 50,000 people who once lived there were hastily evacuated after the explosion; today the only human sounds are the tourist groups who come to marvel at the baleful remains, including a rusting Ferris wheel that was to start taking paying customers a few days after the blast.

After the disaster, authorities established the so-called Zone of Alienation around the plant — a 2,600-square-kilometer (1,000-sq. mile) tract where no one is supposed to live. But life of a sort continues in the village of Chernobyl, where workers who maintain and monitor the plant live on a short-term basis, often two weeks on and then two weeks away to minimize their exposure to the fallout that poisoned the soil. And a few hundred people who were evacuated from the zone eventually trickled back, more attached to their homes than concerned about radiation.

If the desolation of the Chernobyl area is dramatically visible, the suffering of people affected by the accident is often near-invisible. About 600,000 people were conscripted into becoming "liquidators," those who labored to put out the fire — sometimes able to work for only a minute before having to flee the radiation — or move contaminated vehicles to a dumping ground or otherwise clean up.

The liquidators still alive 30 years later suffer widespread health problems. A Ukrainian Health Ministry report suggested only about 5 percent of them could be considered truly healthy. But the dimensions of what happened to their health because of the Chernobyl blast are elusive. The Chernobyl Forum report headed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 said the radiation-related deaths among the 600,000 liquidators was likely to be about 4,000. The U.N. health agency has said more than 9,000 would die of radiation-related cancer and some groups, including Greenpeace, have put the numbers 10 times higher.

The mental effects are clearly troubling decades later. "Many of those who took part, especially in the first months and days, got radiation doses incompatible with life," former liquidator Oleksandr Zhyzhchenko told The Associated Press. "The liquidation . well, local residents, those who lived in Pripyat, called this tragedy with one short word: War."

Svetlana Kozlenko in Kiev, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

Serbia's PM Vucic likely to solidify power in snap vote

April 21, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's powerful prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, is hoping to strengthen his already firm hold on power after Sunday's snap general election. Vucic has called the vote two years early, saying he wanted a clear, new mandate to steer Serbia further toward European Union membership. Critics say Vucic wants to consolidate power while his popularity is still high.

A veteran politician who has transformed from radical anti-Western nationalist into a pro-EU reformer, Vucic has positioned himself as a dominant player both in Serbia and wider in the postwar Balkans.

He has won praise from the EU for efforts to reconnect broken Balkan ties, promote reconciliation and push through some tough economic reforms. However, the 46-year-old faces accusations at home of creating a one-man rule in the style of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

"He has taken over the entire (political) scene," said Dragoljub Zarkovic, editor-in-chief of the liberal Vreme weekly. "Our lives start with Vucic in the morning and the last thing we see before we go to bed is Vucic."

A skillful politician who entered politics in his 20s, Vucic has taken center stage, outmaneuvered his political opponents and pushed them to the margins of Serbia's political scene, Zarkovic said. Pre-election polls suggest that Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party could win about half of the ballots, with the rest divided among all other groups.

"It is like when we were kids and played football," Zarkovic said. "Only Vucic has the ball now and he gets to play." Vucic has complained of being the target of constant attacks by numerous adversaries, and has sought to portray himself as a hard-working prime minister whose sacrifice is not appreciated enough.

"We have never been closer to losing an election," he said just weeks before the vote. Twice-married with two children, Vucic has guarded his privacy and is known almost exclusively as a politician — and as a former Red Star Belgrade soccer fan.

He started out as an ardent nationalist advocating the idea of Greater Serbia — an all-Serb land on crumbling Yugoslavia's territory — which triggered a series of wars. Ambitious and sharp-tongued, Vucic climbed swiftly up the ranks of the extremist Serbian Radical Party, positioning himself close to the party leader Vojislav Seselj and becoming one of the most prominent nationalist politicians during the war era of the 1990s.

In one of his darkest moments, Vucic served as the information minister in Slobodan Milosevic's government in late 1990s, championing punitive laws against liberal media. He personally signed the orders to expel some foreign media at the start of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Vucic switched sides in 2008, splitting from the Radicals to form new, center-right Progressives, together with the current Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic. Vucic toned down his rhetoric, polished his appearance and turned into an EU advocate looking into the future, not the past.

To showcase the change, Vucic last year attended the commemoration ceremony in Srebrenica, where Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Muslim boys and men in 1995, and was pelted with rocks. "The policies of Greater Serbia are not the policies of the future," he recently said. "Those are not the policies of the Serbian government and never will be."

Vucic now insists he is the defense against far-right groups seeking to abolish Serbia's EU prospects. He says good ties with Russia are important, but only along with EU integration. Pro-Russian groups are expected to return to Parliament after Sunday's vote, after being pushed aside for years. Pro-Western opposition is fragmented and sidelined, with Vucic taking over the role of a modernizer despite a controversial record on democratic freedoms.

Supporters, like 67-year-old retired physiotherapist Suncica Vodusek, view Vucic as a committed leader working tirelessly to restart the economy and make life better for ordinary people. "He is ready to cooperate with everyone, Europe, Russia, America," Vodusek said. "Anything that is good for our Serbia."

But, Zarkovic says Vucic has abolished dialogue in Serbia, at a dire cost for the country's fragile democracy. He says Vucic's policies are far from clear. "He is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in everything he can," Zarkovic said. "He is ready for any transformation and he is ready to survive that transformation with tricks."

Serbia's choice ahead of key vote: Russia or the West

April 19, 2016

JAGODINA, Serbia (AP) — His fists are clenched, his legs slightly apart, expressing firmness and leadership. His head is turned slightly to the side, blue eyes looking into the distance with an air of calm determination.

The larger-than-life figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin has a prominent place in Serbia's only wax museum among the Balkan country's historic and religious leaders and other famous individuals such as top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic.

The only foreigner in the crowd, Putin — dressed in a blue, tailored suit, white shirt and a red and white dotted tie — has drawn thousands of visitors in the past weeks, testifying to the admiration many Serbs feel for both the Russian president and Russia as a whole.

"If only Putin had been around in 1999, no one would have dared bomb us," said Milorad Arizanovic, referring to NATO's 78-day air war against Serbia over its crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Standing by Putin's figure, the 65-year-old retiree declared: "Finally there is someone who's standing up to the West."

That's exactly what Russia wants to hear from Serbia, where it is battling for influence in the run-up to general elections on Sunday that many see as a test of the country's enthusiasm for the current government's goal of joining the European Union.

Moscow has been slowly losing its clout in Eastern Europe, as countries have joined NATO and the EU. Most recently, tiny Montenegro has been invited to join the Western military alliance despite strong protests from Russia.

This has left Moscow struggling to retain its economic, political and social presence in the region. Serbia appears to be the Kremlin's prime target as it aims to maintain some sort of buffer zone against spreading Western influence.

Many Serbs still feel victimized by the West, years after the NATO bombing, and see no real benefits from the lengthy accession talks with the EU. For them, a close relationship with Slavic ally Russia seems a more attractive option

If the far-right parties make major gains in the vote, it could derail the country's EU ambitions and destabilize a region torn apart by wars in the 1990s. Analysts say Russia has been working hard to boost its power base in Serbia, adding to the already strong cultural and historic ties. Russian officials — including Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — have been frequent visitors, amid a rise in economic cooperation, political and military ties.

Jelena Milic, of the pro-Western think tank Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, says Russia's so-called "soft power" — acting on Serbian politics through attraction and persuasion rather than by force — has reached alarming levels.

"Replacement of democracy with autocracy under the current Russian model is the main objective of Russian soft power in Serbia and the region," Milic said. "Another goal is to diminish support for European integration, and to discredit the very concept of EU and NATO expansion."

Milic said there are more than 100 Moscow-backed organizations and media outlets active in Serbia, as well as a visible rise in right-leaning political groups aggressively advocating integration with Russia and an end to Serbia's EU bid.

After Serbia recently surprisingly approved an enhanced cooperation agreement with NATO, pro-Russian groups responded swiftly with anti-NATO rallies, with protesters carrying pictures of Putin, and lashed out against the EU.

In neighboring Montenegro — also a Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation like Serbia and Russia — anti-NATO opposition has enjoyed open support from Russia. Opposition groups have organized violent protests to undermine the NATO bid, amid warnings from the Kremlin of unspecified "retaliation."

Serbia's conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic — who is expected to remain in power after Sunday's vote — has said his government will pursue integration with the EU, but will cherish its close ties to Moscow as well.

Vucic's government has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has proclaimed military neutrality to avoid Russian fury. But remaining politically and militarily neutral could prove difficult as Serbia advances on its EU path.

Vucic has faced mounting opposition from far-right groups seeking alliance only with Russia. Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who was recently acquitted of war crimes by a U.N. tribunal and whose popularity in Serbia has been on the rise, has promised to turn the upcoming vote into a referendum on EU and Russia ties.

"Nothing good ever came from the EU, America and our other traditional enemies in the West. They bombed us, killed our children and took away our lands," Seselj said. "We must join union with our Russian brothers. They have never bombed us."

Although Russian investment in Serbia is modest compared with that from the EU, trade has been on the rise and polls still show Serbs regard Moscow as Serbia's most important ally. Though most Serbs believe both living and democratic standards are higher in the West than in Russia — and would rather live and work in the West than in Russia — a clear majority would welcome a Russian military presence in the country and would support Moscow's legal system and foreign policy, a recent poll showed.

Pro-Russian propaganda has been in full swing ahead of the election. Kremlin-owned Serbian-language media are producing biased coverage of events to support the groups that serve Russian interests; pro-Russian groups are organizing rallies against the EU and NATO; nationalist officials are blasting the West while promising economic revival together with "our brother Russians"; and pro-Kremlin trolls react in large numbers to any development.

Milic, the head of the pro-Western think-tank, has been one target of pro-Russian groups. After she appeared on a TV talk show advocating Serbia's NATO membership, an avalanche of hate and threatening messages followed, and her name was publicly mentioned at anti-NATO rallies.

The slurs on social media included rape threats against her teenage daughter and forced police to give her 24-hour protection. In Jagodina, a small industrial town in central Serbia, Putin's statue is just one among many signs of adoration.

"Emperor, we love you," reads a billboard in the center of Jagodina, under a picture of Putin. Putin T-shirts are sold on the streets and several cafes and even burger joints named after Putin have opened throughout Serbia.

The unveiling of the statue last month at the wax museum was attended by Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, a political mentor of the Jagodina mayor. "Putin is our main attraction," Jelena Bulatovic, the museum manager, said, adding that since the figure was revealed, visitor numbers have jumped by 50 percent.

Asked why Putin's figure appears to be taller than the Russian president himself, she explained: "We could not allow some high-school student to stand beside the figure and find himself taller than Putin."

AP Writer Jovana Gec contributed.

Protests, political turmoil over pardons issued in Macedonia

April 20, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Thousands of people have been protesting almost nightly in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, since President Gjorge Ivanov announced a decision last week to grant presidential pardons that halted criminal proceedings against dozens of people, including high-ranking politicians, accused in a wiretapping scandal that has roiled Macedonia for months.

In an attempt to resolve the crisis, the country's main political leaders agreed several months ago to hold elections in June, two years ahead of time. But the latest move by the president has reignited the simmering political turmoil.

Here is a look at the developments in Macedonia:


Thousands of people from across the political spectrum have been protesting, and Ivanov's move has also drawn criticism from the European Union, which Macedonia has been hoping to join for years. The protests began in the capital but have spread to other cities, with demonstrators demanding Ivanov's resignation. Last week seven people, including five police officers, were injured and 13 arrested when demonstrations in Skopje turned violent.


Ivanov has explained his decision as a move to defuse the political crisis before the June 5 election, saying he wants to "defend national interests" and ensure elections are held in an "atmosphere without pressure and blackmailing." He has called for national reconciliation, saying the wiretapping scandal that sparked the crisis "has resulted in endless (acts) of hatred and recrimination." But critics at home and abroad view the step as an attempt to prevent politicians from being brought to justice.


Last year, opposition leader Zoran Zaev alleged that the governing conservatives, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, had illegally wiretapped about 20,000 people, including judges, police, politicians, foreign diplomats and journalists. He regularly released sound recordings of what he said were the wiretaps, saying they were passed to him by a whistleblower. Gruevski strenuously denied he had anything to do with the taps, and accused Zaev of plotting a coup to overthrow his government.

The leaked conversations appeared to show corruption at the highest level, triggering investigations against government officials, including former ministers of the interior and transportation. They deny the charges.

In an attempt to resolve the ensuing political crisis, the country's top politicians agreed to an EU-brokered deal under which Gruevski stepped down, paving the way for June's elections. A special prosecution office was also formed under the deal, to look into allegations of wrongdoing.


The government gazette has published a list of 56 people who benefit from the presidential pardon, but doesn't specify what charges they faced. Among them are Gruevski, who stepped down in January as part of the political deal, and Zaev. The list also includes former Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, transportation minister Mile Janakievski and former intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov. Former Macedonian president Branko Crvenkovski as well as mayors, businessmen, a judge and prosecutors are also on the list. Many of them — including Gruevski, Mijalkov, Zaev and Crvenkovski, have said they don't accept the pardon and have asked for it to be revoked for them so they can clear their names in court.


Ivanov has insisted he will not revoke the pardons. But 80 groups organizing the protests say they will continue their demonstrations demanding his resignation, the postponement of the early elections and a caretaker government to be formed to prepare for free and fair elections.

Even Ivanov's own VMRO-DPMNE party, as well as the opposition Social Democrats, has said it wants the criminal investigations to continue. "Our position is clear, everybody who committed crimes has to be punished," VMRO said.


It might. The elections were originally scheduled for April 24, but the date was postponed after the opposition complained the main conditions for a free and fair vote were not met. The Social Democrats have said they will boycott the election because they say those conditions — including ensuring an up-to-date voter registry, preventing intimidation and the pressuring of voters, and ensuring fair media coverage — have still not been met. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who mediated the talks, has warned Macedonia's leaders that "if they do not work together and not stay focused to have free elections, the new government will not be internationally accepted."

The opposition Social Democrats say the deal is "buried" because it failed to secure free and fair elections. On the other hand, the governing conservative VMRO-DPMNE insists elections must be held on the agreed June 5 date.


This is one more step back for Macedonia's hopes to join the European Union and NATO. Apart from the deep political crisis, the country has also struggled to cope with being on the refugee route, with about a million people transiting through its territory. Macedonia has had EU candidacy status since 2005 and was invited to join NATO in 2008, but was blocked by neighboring Greece because of a dispute over the name "Macedonia," which Greece sees as representing territorial claims over its own province of the same name.