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EU's Hahn heads to Macedonia to help break deadlock

A man wrapped in a Macedonian flag leads a protest march through a street in Skopje, Macedonia, Thursday, March 16, 2017. Thousands of Macedonians protested peacefully for a third week in the capital Skopje and other cities, against the designation of Albanian as a second official language nationwide. The banner reads in Macedonian "For Common Macedonia". (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

A man wrapped in a Macedonian flag leads a protest march through a street in Skopje, Macedonia, Thursday, March 16, 2017. Thousands of Macedonians protested peacefully for a third week in the capital Skopje and other cities, against the designation of Albanian as a second official language nationwide. The banner reads in Macedonian "For Common Macedonia". (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, Macedonia — The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, will visit Macedonia on Tuesday in another bid to help break a political deadlock that has left the country's parties unable to form a government since an election in December.

The Balkan country has been roiled by a two-year political crisis sparked by a massive wiretapping scandal that led to holding a general election two years early. While former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski won, he didn't have enough votes to form a government and his coalition talks with a party from the country's ethnic Albanian minority floundered.

The crisis is triggering inter-ethnic tensions, as three ethnic Albanian parties are calling for Albanian to be designated a second official language as a condition to joining any coalition government. That has led to daily protests for the past three weeks.

Albanian is already recognized as an official language in minority-dominated areas in northwestern Macedonia but not in the country as a whole.

The group "For a United Macedonia" called for a demonstration outside the EU mission's offices in downtown Skopje to coincide with Hanh's visit, order to send "a clear message to Hahn that we are saying 'no' to the government that will ruin the unitary character of this country."

Ethnic Albanians form about one-fourth of Macedonia's population, and have had a rocky relationship with the majority Macedonians since the country gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The country narrowly avoided a civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanian militants seeking greater rights for the minority took up arms against government forces. The conflict was quelled following a U.N.-brokered peace accord and required NATO peacekeepers.

December's election was held as part of an internationally brokered attempt to ease the political tensions. But neither Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE conservatives nor the main opposition Social Democrats won enough support to form a government alone.

Gruevski's party has rejected the ethnic Albanian parties' demands. The head of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, tried to form a coalition but the country's president, Gjorge Ivanov, refused to give him the official mandate to do so, saying the language issue was an attempt to destroy Macedonian independence.

Speaking late Sunday on private Kanal 5 television, Gruevski said a new election was the way out of the impasse. He also offered to support the Social Democrats if they wanted to govern alone in a minority government — something that is considered highly unlikely.

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This version corrects the spelling of the EU commissioner's first name in the summary and the headline to Johannes.

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