SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — A top United Nations human rights official expressed concern Friday over the political crisis that has triggered mass protests in Macedonia.
UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said he was "deeply concerned by serious challenges to the rule of law and the shrinking of democratic space" in Macedonia.
Speaking at the end of a two-day visit, Simonovic said the crisis was hurting efforts to bolster democratic institutions in a country hoping to gain NATO and eventual European Union membership.
"Far-reaching improvements are needed in areas such as judicial independence, media freedom and the separation of state institutions from party influence, as different UN human rights mechanisms have previously highlighted," he said.
The crisis stems from leaked wiretapped conversations apparently showing government corruption. Opposition leader Zoran Zaev of the Social Democrats claims Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was behind the alleged illegal wiretapping of more than 20,000 people.
Gruevski denies wrongdoing, claiming the recordings were the work of foreign spies.
Adding to the political tension, a gunbattle earlier this month between police and ethnic Albanian gunmen left 18 people dead. The country of nearly 2.1 million people has a large ethnic Albanian minority.
Simonovic praised an EU-mediated initiative this week that brought Gruevski and the opposition to talks held in Strasbourg, France.
"I welcome the opening of a dialogue ... There is a lot of homework that remains to be done here — a shared responsibility among all actors of this country," he said.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of pro-opposition protesters gathered in the center of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, to demand Gruevski's resignation.
The 44-year-old Gruevski, who has won successive elections since 2006, said he will not bow to pressure to step down.