SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's president on Wednesday handed the mandate to form a government to left-wing opposition leader Zoran Zaev as an initial step toward ending a more than two-year political crisis that culminated last month in angry protesters storming parliament, injuring dozens of lawmakers and journalists.
Zaev has 20 days to seek a coalition partner and form a Cabinet, but said he hoped to complete talks in half that time.
Macedonia has been without an elected government since December, when former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's conservative party won elections but fell short of a parliamentary majority to form a government.
President Gjorge Ivanov had earlier refused to give the mandate to Zaev, whose Social-Democrat Alliance party came second in December's elections, saying Zaev's pledge to consider enhancing the ethnic Albanian minority's standing would undermine Macedonia's sovereignty. Roughly a quarter of the country's population is ethnic Albanian.
Wednesday's move was welcomed by the European Union, which Macedonia has long hoped to join.
Giving the mandate to Zaev was "an important step in the process of government formation," European Commissioner Johannes Hahn and EU foreign affairs representative Federica Mogherini said in a joint statement.
"We call on all parliamentary parties to put their divisions aside and work jointly on a common reform agenda, to bring the country back on its Euro-Atlantic integration path. This is what the people want and deserve," they said.
Zaev said he would immediately start talks with three ethnic Albanian parties, the Democratic Union for Integration, Besa and the Alliance for Albanians, seeking to form a coalition government, which he said he hoped to be able to do within 10 days.
Zaev said he was "committed that a new government will be focused on building a civic, unitary and European Macedonia."
"All our efforts will be to build a just and legal state, to provide conditions for the quality of life of all citizens in Macedonia with mutual understanding, and to respect the multiethnic character of the country," he said.
In a short statement in the presidential residence, Ivanov said that "the obstacles that we had to give the mandate are now removed."
Macedonia has been roiled by a deep political crisis since early 2015 sparked by a massive wiretapping scandal that left the two main political parties with irreconcilable differences.
The crisis threatened to re-ignite inter-ethnic conflict, with the ethnic Albanian parties demanding that the Albanian language be designated a second official language in the country as condition to join any new government. The demand had triggered monthly protests throughout the country.
Months of political tensions boiled three weeks ago over disagreements about the election of a new parliament speaker. An angry mob stormed the parliament building, leaving more than 100 people injured, mostly protesters but also lawmakers and journalists. Police has filed criminal charges against about 30 protesters.