SKOPJE - Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev pleaded not guilty Tuesday to taking a bribe of more than 160,000 euros ($198,000) while he was a local mayor in the southeast of the country five years ago.

The trial had originally been scheduled to start in early 2016, but has been adjourned several times since.

Prosecutors charge Zaev with demanding the bribe from a local businessman to allow the privatisation of land in the town of Strumica, where he served as mayor for three terms, before becoming the country's prime minister in mid-2017. "We will prove that Zaev as the Strumica municipality mayor in 2013 committed the criminal offence of bribe-taking," prosecutor Valentina Bislimovska told the court in Skopje.

But Zaev told reporters after the hearing that "it will be confirmed that the bribery indictment is absurd."

The charges have "malicious intentions to prevent my political activity," the prime minister said.

The affair erupted in 2015 when a video came to light allegedly showing him demanding the bribe.

At the time, Macedonia was embroiled in political crisis over a wiretapping scandal, in which the European Union eventually had to intervene and mediate.

Zaev's lawyer, Filip Medarski, said that the filmed meeting between his client and businessman Ivan Nikolov had taken place when "privatisation of land was completely over." And no financial transaction took place on which the charges could be based, he said.

Zaev said he had asked the businessman to make a donation for construction of a church. Nikolov, due to appear as witness, did not attend the hearing on Tuesday. The trial is scheduled to continue on March 19.