Reuters International

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks after a NATO-Russia Council at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO's secretary-general warned Macedonia on Wednesday not to let its political crisis wreck its hopes of joining the Atlantic alliance.

The tiny ex-Yugoslav republic has been in turmoil since the opposition accused then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his counter-intelligence chief in February 2015 of wiretapping more than 20,000 people.

Under an EU-brokered agreement, Macedonian politicians agreed last year to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal and to hold early elections, but the process is fraying.

In his first public remarks on the crisis, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged President Gjorge Ivanov to revoke his pardons of more than 50 people implicated in the scandal, which has prompted almost daily protests by Macedonians.

"The door of NATO is still open, but it is crucial that the country's leaders address problems on the rule of law, including revoking the recent presidential pardons," Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"It is important that the minimum condition for normal political democratic life is in place."

Earlier on Wednesday Macedonia's top court temporarily suspended all preparations for an election on June 5 until it decides whether the dissolution of parliament in April was in line with the constitution.

The European Commission, which has also expressed concern about the rule of law and democracy in Macedonia, welcomed the court move, saying it "clears the way for parliament to reconvene and to cancel the June 5 elections, the conditions for which were not there".

Macedonia aspires to join both NATO and the EU. The West sees binding the poor Balkan states into both organisations as the best way of bringing stability and prosperity to a region long blighted by ethnic tensions, poverty and corruption.

Macedonia has provided support for NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but it must resolve a dispute with southern neighbour Greece over its name before it can join the alliance.

Macedonia, which won its independence from the now-defunct Yugoslavia in 1991, is officially listed as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the United Nations.

Many Greeks fret that its use of the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim on a northern Greek province of the same name, something Skopje has always strongly denied.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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