SKOPJE, Macedonia — Tens of thousands of protesters gathered Sunday in the center of the Macedonian capital to demand the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
The government of the tiny, landlocked Balkan nation of about 2 million people is reeling from a massive, long-running wiretap scandal and a gun battle a week ago between police and ethnic Albanian gunmen that left 18 dead in a border town. In a region with a long and bloody history of ethnic conflicts and political instability, the developments have caused consternation both domestically and abroad.
The crowd outside the government building in Skopje chanted "goodbye Gruevski" and "resignations, resignations," and a poster was held aloft showing Gruevski behind prison bars.
"We have come for our future. I am sending a clear message: Gruevski, don't procrastinate. leave!" said Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, one of the politicians who addressed the crowd. Former diplomats, human rights activists and journalists also spoke.
Majority ethnic Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians mingled together in the crowd.
"I am here to say goodbye to Nikola. I want this government to leave immediately because people have suffered for too long under his regime", said Blagica Nikolova, 52, who was in the crowd.
Mirjana Najceska, a human rights activist, said the protest was about freedom: "the same freedom that my father took up arms to fight fascists for when he was 17 and who has come again here today now that he is 90."
In January, Zaev began releasing a cache of wiretapped conversations, and claimed that Gruevski was behind the mass wiretapping of more than 20,000 Macedonians.
The conversations purport to reveal corruption at the highest levels of government, including mismanagement of funds, spurious criminal prosecutions of opponents and even attempted cover-ups of killings.
Zaev said those conversations were leaked to him by "patriots" in the domestic intelligence service. He demands the formation of a caretaker government that will organize new elections.
Gruevski, who has won successive elections since 2006, angrily rejects the accusations. He accuses Zaev of participating in a coup plot backed by unnamed foreign spy agencies.
Richard Howitt, a British MEP and former European Parliament rapporteur for Macedonia's EU accession, said in a written statement that he hoped his presence with other international representatives would help promote calm, following last week's events where anti-government protests turned violent and the deadly attack in Kumanovo.
"Current events must not allow a return to inter-ethnic violence in a country which we see as our partner, now and in the future," Howitt said.
The government says it's doing what it can. Three government officials who were among Gruevski's closest aides — the interior and transport ministers, Gordana Jankuloska and Mile Janakieski, and intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov, a relative of Gruevski — resigned last week, saying they did so to calm the situation. The three were the voices most heard on the recordings.
Zaev said the resignations aren't enough.
"There is nothing that Nikola Gruevski can do except to leave this (government) building behind us," Zaev said.
He also called for the resignation of Macedonia's chief prosecutor, new leadership for the national TV broadcaster, and the formation of a caretaker government to organize free and fair elections.
Zaev and Gruevski have been invited by the European Parliament for talks to resolve the crisis on Tuesday in Strasbourg.
The protests are expected to continue for days, with thousands planning to set up tents in front of the government building.
A pro-government protest has been called for Monday in front of the Macedonian parliament building. The government hopes it will be at least as massive as the opposition rally on Sunday.