Reuters International

Protesters demonstrate in front of the EU Info Center building in Skopje, Macedonia, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

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By Matt Robinson

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Nationalists in Macedonia are "playing with fire" in refusing to relinquish power and the European Union should consider halting its accession process in order to break a dangerous deadlock, said the former envoy who helped avert civil war in the Balkan country.

A long-running political crisis in the former Yugoslav republic turned violent on Thursday when supporters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, some in balaclavas, stormed parliament after a new majority in the assembly elected an ethnic Albanian as speaker, a first step towards replacing the nationalist-led government.

The events, in which one ethnic Albanian MP was brutally beaten and several other deputies left bloodied, raised fears that the political crisis was spiralling out of control and may plunge the country back into ethnic conflict 16 years after Western diplomacy averted full-blown civil war.

The nationalists of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski are blocking the formation of a new government led by the opposition Social Democrats, accusing them of doing a deal with the country's ethnic Albanian minority that risked tearing the country apart by allowing wider official use of the Albanian language.

Pieter Feith, who as NATO's Balkans troubleshooter at the turn of the century helped negotiate a peace deal to end months of clashes between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2001, warned of further escalation.

The nationalists, he said, "are playing with fire. The next step I could imagine, but God forbid, if arms are going to be handed out and circulated as they were in 2001, you are quickly on the abyss of civil war," Feith told Reuters in a telephone interview late on Friday.

Feith also served as an EU envoy in the region and is currently a senior diplomatic adviser at the European Institute of Peace, which supports EU mediation and conflict-resolution efforts.

The Dutch diplomat suggested the EU, which has lost diplomatic leverage across the Balkans due to an increasingly apparent reluctance to expand further into the region, was considering sanctions.

"There is also perhaps room for sanctions, some form of travel ban or financial measures directed specifically against the leadership of VMRO," Feith said.

Asked if he was advocating sanctions or if they were being considered by the EU, Feith replied: "I think the latter."

"DRAW A LINE"

A spokeswoman for the EU could not immediately be reached for comment, but German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also hinted at possible punishment, telling reporters in Malta: "We are sending clear signals ... but of course there a lot of other measures which we hope don't have to be launched."

The EU's leverage in Macedonia and across the Balkans has been diminished by the bloc's waning enthusiasm for enlargement, the promise of which had helped stabilise and reform the region after the bloody breakup of socialist Yugoslavia.

Feith said Gruevski's nationalists were "simply not listening."

"Are we going to continue this charade or are we going to draw a line and say that the accession process has ended or is about to end? That's the question that I think needs to be faced," he said.

Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who heads the new parliamentary majority and was hurt during Thursday's violence, said on Friday he expected the new speaker, former guerrilla Talat Xhaferi, to assume his duties and notify the president of the new majority.

President Gjorge Ivanov, an ally of Gruevski, has so far refused to give Zaev the mandate to form a government.

The VMRO narrowly won a snap election in December, held under a deal to end two years of political crisis triggered by a wiretap scandal that appeared to expose widespread abuse of office.

But Gruevski, who was accused by critics of becoming increasingly autocratic during a decade in power, failed to revive a coalition deal with the largest ethnic Albanian party, which threw its support behind Zaev instead.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Valletta; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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