Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski told tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Skopje on May 18 that he will not leave office or otherwise surrender to the opposition.
While critics have cited allegations of corruption and a vote-rigging scandal in demanding his resignation, Gruevski, 44, countered that opponents are trying to establish a "dictatorship of a political minority."
“They believed that they could break us, lie to us with fake and spliced tapes, with false narratives, that they will scare us with terrorist bandits, that we will succumb, surrender. But tonight they have received their answer," he said.
Gruevski's fiery retort to critics came after he and opposition leaders failed to make progress at another meeting sponsored by the United States and European Union.
While admitting some "mistakes and omissions" afterward that he pledged to correct, Gruevski vowed: "Macedonia is not giving up. Macedonia is strong. We say to them that we will not retreat. We will not give up.”
The pro-Gruevski rally in central Skopje appeared comparable in size to a May 17 opposition demonstration, with many people arriving in columns of buses organized from elsewhere in the country.
The counterdemonstration went into the night on May 18 outside the parliament building, some two kilometers from where hundreds of opposition supporters were camping out in front of government offices.
Zoran Zaev, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, the chief opposition group, had urged his supporters to stay outside the government headquarters "until Gruevski goes."
Hundreds remained at their encampments there during the pro-government demonstrations.
The rival demonstrations highlighted the deep divisions that plague the tiny Balkan country, which has been dogged by a political crisis since disputed elections last year
The political crisis intensified recently when Zaev released a cache of wiretapped conversations that appeared to reveal corruption at the highest levels of government. He claims Gruevski was behind the wiretaps of 20,000 citizens.
Gruevski, who has won successive elections since 2006, rejects the accusations and accuses Zaev of participating in a coup plot backed by foreign spy agencies.
Under pressure from the European Union, which Macedonia has applied to join, leaders of the country's four main parties met on May 18 to try to defuse the crisis, but talks hardly got off the ground.
"We have not opened talks on any issue because we first need to solve certain things," Zaev told reporters after the meeting.
He said the issues included the equal status of all the participants "and guarantees on implementation of everything that would be agreed."
He said his party continues to insist that an interim government be formed without Gruevski in it.
The European Parliament has invited Gruevski and Zaev to Strasbourg on May 19 for another round of talks.
Macedonia became an EU candidate in 2005 but has yet to begin accession talks due to opposition from Greece. Athens denies its neighbor the right to use the name Macedonia, arguing it implies a claim on a northern Greek region of the same name.
At the pro-government rally, Gruevski stressed that "Macedonia's future lies in the EU and NATO."
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Macedonians should work to deescalate the conflict.
"The important thing is to avoid more violence, to make sure that the democratic institutions are developed, and that a rule of law is implemented," Stoltenberg said.
The United States is also urging the parties to try to resolve their differences.
"We remain in close consultation with the Macedonian government and with political leaders to convey our concerns about the current political crisis," the U.S. State Department's press director, Jeff Rathke, told reporters in Washington May 18.
Rathke said Gruevski's government needs "to make progress toward accounting for allegations of government wrongdoing that arise from the recent disclosures."
But he said the opposition, which has been boycotting parliament, also needs to "return to parliament so that it can take part in strengthened parliamentary oversight of Macedonian government institutions, including an inquiry committee into these disclosures."
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa