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Macedonia's New PM Vows to Pursue Economic Reform, EU & NATO Membership


FILE - Leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) Zoran Zaev, speaks to the press after receiving a mandate by Macedonia's President on behalf of the parliamentary's majority, in Skopje, May 17, 2017.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev vowed on Tuesday to step up economic reforms and pledged to speed up the country's bid to join the European Union and NATO, as he presented the program of his new cabinet in parliament.

Macedonia has been without a functional government since 2015, after a wiretapping scandal brought down the previous administration. Zaev's Social Democrats have now formed a coalition with parties representing the country's ethnic Albanians.

"I will lead a reformist government," Zaev told parliament.

"Our goal is opening membership talks with the EU as soon as possible and NATO membership as soon as possible," he said.

Parliament is expected to approve the new cabinet on Wednesday.

The government will be hoping to lead Macedonia out of its worst political crisis since 2001, when Western diplomacy brought it back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency.

Efforts to advance towards membership of the EU and NATO have stalled due to a row with Greece over Macedonia's name, which it shares with a northern Greek province.

Of the 25 ministers in Zaev's government, seven are ethnic Albanians, who make up one-third of the country's population.

"Our goal is economic growth of 5 percent on average in the period of the mandate," Zaev said.

Academic and former professional soccer player Dragan Tevdovski will lead the finance ministry, aiming to bring down the 24 percent jobless rate and implement measures to curb debt and make the pension system sustainable.

The new foreign minister will be veteran diplomat Nikola Dimitrov, formerly the Yugoslav republic's ambassador to the United States and at one point its negotiator with Greece in talks over the country's name.

Greece regards Skopje's use of the name as a territorial grab, and in protest it has been blocking Macedonia's accession into the EU and NATO.

Dimitrov will oversee the U.N.-sponsored negotiations with Greece that have been stalled for several years due to the political and debt crises affecting the two countries.

Macedonia also has domestic ethnicity issues to tackle. As part of the coalition deal an ethnic Albanian was elected last month to be the speaker in parliament. That prompted protests by nationalists who stormed the parliament building and beat some deputies including Zaev.

After Zaev gave written guarantees to the president not to undermine Macedonia's constitutional order or sovereignty, the nationalists agreed to participate in the work of the parliament.

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