Macedonia’s opposition leader was left bloodied and trapped in parliament on Thursday evening after masked men stormed the building and attacked MPs in a bid to halt steps towards forming a new government.
Zoran Zaev, leader of the leftwing opposition SDSM party, was pictured bleeding from the head and standing behind supporters in the corner of a parliament conference room shortly after 8pm local time.
An adviser to Mr Zaev said that his injuries were superficial but could not say when he would be able to leave the building. At least three other MPs were also injured, one seriously, according to local reports.
Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, tweeted an appeal for calm while the MPs were being held in the building: “I condemn the attacks on MPs in Skopje in the strongest terms. Violence has NO place in Parliament. Democracy must run its course,” he said.
The EU and US ambassadors to Macedonia urged peaceful dialogue and called on police to reestablish control over the situation.
Western diplomats have grown increasingly fearful of a violent escalation in the country’s poisonous two-year political crisis, which was first prompted by leaked tapes apparently revealing government abuses.
Russia’s foreign ministry has condemned western efforts at mediation, raising fears of a broader geopolitical confrontation over the Balkan republic, which aspires to EU and Nato membership.
The most recent phase of the crisis followed Macedonia’s elections in December when the outgoing VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition lost its governing majority.
Rather than handing power to a parliamentary majority led by Mr Zaev, VMRO accused him of betraying the country by promising greater language rights for the country’s ethnic Albanian minority.
Gjorge Ivanov, Macedonia’s president and a close ally of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, has refused to allow Mr Zaev’s MPs to elect a president of the parliament and form a government for more than four months, casting his own obstruction as a patriotic defence of Macedonia’s constitution.
A steady stream of western politicians have visited Skopje in recent weeks, urging Mr Ivanov and Mr Gruevski to allow the swift election of a new government — in effect, to hand over power peacefully. VMRO leaders have instead called for fresh elections to end the impasse.
On Thursday evening, opposition MPs voted to elect Talat Xhaferi, a former defence minister from the ethnic Albanian DUI party, as president of the parliament, an important preliminary step in allowing parliament to elect a new government, despite the president’s opposition.
A stream of protesters forced their way past a small number of policemen and into the parliament building after the vote, carrying Macedonian flags.
A number cornered Mr Zaev in a conference room, ejected journalists and sealed the doors, said Andreja Stojkovski, president of Eurothink, a Skopje think-tank.
“Police are still freely allowing people into the parliament — they are making no effort to prevent the occupation,” Mr Stojkovski said.
Mr Gruevski appealed for calm shortly after footage of the violence was released. Hoyt Yee, US deputy assistant secretary of state, is expected to arrive in Skopje on Monday as part of ongoing mediation efforts.