By Matt Robinson
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonian magazine editor Mladen Cadikovski received his "file" in a binder -- page after page of transcribed telephone calls with colleagues and friends, leaked to him by the country's opposition leader who is publishing scores of such wire-taps.
Cadikovski's Focus magazine is fiercely critical of Macedonia's conservative government and he was not surprised that authorities might be tapping his calls.
"(But) it's a different feeling when you open the folder and see at least a dozen real conversations, that your life is sitting wide open in the palm of someone's hand," he said.
Fourteen years since NATO pulled Macedonia from the brink of civil war, the ex-Yugoslav republic once hailed as a success-story of Western intervention is embroiled in a scandal that critics say has exposed its democracy as hollow and could potentially reopen a dangerous ethnic divide.
For three months opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev has been publishing the wire-taps he says he received from a whistleblower. He says they were gathered illegally and on an industrial scale by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's government.
Voices purported to be those of Gruevski, senior officials, journalists and judges have been aired at press conferences. The tapes appear to expose ministers and security officials discussing how to employ rank-and-file party members in state jobs, pick judges and massage elections.
Gruevski has dismissed the wire-taps as the work of foreign spies and the authorities have charged Zaev, who has no immunity from prosecution, with trying to topple the government.
The European Union, which Macedonia hopes to join, expressed "grave concern" on Tuesday over what it said was deterioration in the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedom of media.
"If the recordings are true, and much suggests that they are, Macedonia cannot be described as a democracy," said Florian Bieber, an expert on the region based at the University of Graz.
Gruevski was not available to speak to Reuters but a senior ally, deputy parliament speaker and former foreign minister Antonio Milososki, accused Zaev of "playing a risky game".
"It does not fit someone who is trying to promote himself to be a prime minister of a country, to play the role of Julian Assange or Edward Snowden," he told Reuters, referring to well-known leakers of classified information in the West.
Faced with the prospect of a lengthy jail sentence, Zaev has now threatened to publish tapes he says expose government machinations against Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority if Gruevski does not agree to hold new, fair elections.
With Macedonia's EU and NATO aspirations in limbo due to a long-running row with Greece, the West's leverage in brokering a solution to the crisis is limited. But the stakes are high.
In 2001, amid clashes between government security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, NATO brokered a peace deal that offered greater rights for the 30-percent Albanian minority and Macedonia was promised a path to membership of NATO and the EU.
But progress has been blocked by the dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name, which it shares with a northern Greek province. Meanwhile, Gruevski has shifted right, burnishing Macedonians' sense of national identity with a gaudy, neo-classical facelift of the capital and, critics say, backsliding on democratic freedoms, particularly independent media.
Frustration over the lack of progress towards the European mainstream is again fueling ethnic tensions. Diplomats fear both sides in the surveillance scandal may try to exploit the threat of inter-ethnic violence.
Zaev says he has wire-taps concerning a notorious murder case from 2012, when five Macedonian men were shot dead at a lake near Skopje. Police blamed "radical Islamists" and five ethnic Albanians were convicted. The case triggered Albanian protests and some remain suspicious about the official version.
"Everyone will know the truth," Zaev told Reuters.
Bieber said a bigger risk lay in Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE trying to stir up ethnic tensions in order to shore up its own support base and distract attention from the wire-taps.
On Tuesday, police said 40 armed men speaking Albanian had briefly seized a police post near Macedonia's northern border with Kosovo, in what authorities described as a "terrorist act". The men disappeared without a trace.
(Additional reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Gareth Jones)