The European Union is considering imposing sanctions on Macedonia's leaders for reneging on an agreement last year to investigate corruption in the ruling class and issuing an amnesty instead, news media reported on April 21.
The EU-brokered agreement last June called on Macedonia to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate suspected crimes such as election-rigging and murder cover-up that surfaced in audios of phone conversations that were released by Macedonia's main opposition party based on tapes it said the government obtained by illegally wiretapping more than 20,000 people.
But Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov last week effectively neutralized the investigation by pardoning 56 officials involved in the wiretapping scandal, provoking a series of protests calling for his resignation that continue to this day.
The president’s pardon extended to top ruling VMRO party leaders, including Nikola Gruevski, who temporarily stepped aside as prime minister in January as part of last year's agreement, as well as top figures from other parties.
The amnesty and other backtracking by the Macedonian government is prompting the EU to consider travel bans and asset freezes against politicians judged to be blocking progress, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters reported on April 21.
The EU was forced to call off a mediating session it had tentatively scheduled for April 22 because Macedonia's main political opposition group refused to join the talks as long as the amnesty continued in effect.
"We are extremely concerned by the shortsightedness of the current government. The EU is willing to consider sanctions on politicians blocking a resolution of the crisis. Macedonia is heading towards international isolation," one EU official told Reuters.
An EU diplomat told the Financial Times that unless the amnesty on the wiretapping investigations is suspended and swift progress made on delayed electoral reforms, the commission will withdraw its 2009 recommendation for Macedonia to begin formal EU accession talks.
If the situation does not improve in Skopje, Brussels is also likely to withdraw invitations to Macedonian leaders to attend important NATO and Balkans summits scheduled for July, the FT said.
The possible EU travel bans on leading members of Macedonia's ruling VMRO party would be unprecedented, and all 28 EU countries would have to unanimously agree to such measures, the FT said.
EU officials said they were shocked when Ivanov issued the amnesty, which they considered "a direct attack of the rule of law" and a serious violation of last year's so-called "Przino Agreement."
In a public statement announcing the cancellation of mediation talks on April 21, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and three members of the European Parliament warned of unspecified "further actions" the EU may take.
“We have consistently said that the breakdown of the Przino Agreement would have very serious consequences for the country," they said. "We deeply regret retrograde steps that move the country further away from its aspirations towards European Union accession. In the absence of any further progress, we are now forced to consider further actions."
“The persisting rule of law issues in Skopje…must be addressed without any further delay,” they said. “This concerns in particular the recent presidential pardon and the steps urgently required for the preparation of credible elections which could be recognized by the international community.”
Specifically to ensure fair elections, which are currently scheduled for June 5, EU officials said Macedonia needs to clean up its long-disputed voter lists.
With reporting by Reuters, the Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal