Tensions are high with a helicopter whirring over downtown Skopje, as the events at the St. Spas church are beginning. Macedonia is honoring VMRO leader and national liberation icon Goce Delcev on the 151st anniversary of his birth, amid fears of incidents as tensions with Bulgaria are high.

Bulgarian activists and nationalists are expected to come to Skopje and to try to make their way to the St. Spas church, where Goce is laid to rest. A group of Macedonian activists has been camped out at the approach to the church, determined to prevent the display of Bulgarian national symbols and chants during the event.

In mid January, Bulgarian nationalists led by politicians Kostadin Kostadinov and Angel Dzhambazhki paraded through Skopje, declaring that “Macedonia is Bulgarian land”. This was followed by the severe beating of a Bulgarian activist in the city of Ohrid, which prompted Bulgaria to briefly withdraw its ambassador and to threaten to extend its veto against Macedonia’s EU accession talks. The Bulgarian Parliament yesterday adopted a declaration condemning threats against Bulgarians in Macedonia and urged Macedonia to fully respect the 2017 Zaev – Borisov treaty – indicating that it will be blocked in its EU accession talks until the treaty that paves the way for extensive Bulgarian demands against Macedonia is implemented. The first of these demands is that Macedonia names the Bulgarian nation in its Constitution.

Activists from the Patriotic Institute of VMRO-DPMNE are leading the protest on the approach to the Kale fortress complex, where the church is located. They put out signs with quotes from Delcev, clearly marking him as a Macedonian, not Bulgarian leader, as Bulgaria often claims. These protesters are not allowed to come near the church by foot, and vehicle traffic in area was closed off since Thursday.

Since this morning, Government officials are also preventing accredited journalists from entering the church – the crews are ordered to remain outside and can’t report on the actual honoring – which has sometimes included activists whipping out divisive symbols at the gravesite. Yesterday, critical news outlets, including Republika, were informed that their requests for accreditation are denied.
VMRO-DPMNE President Hristijan Mickoski will visit the grave early in the morning, as will Government officials – President Stevo Pendarovski, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski and a Parliament delegation led by Deputy Speaker Goran Misovski. Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdziev, who came to Skopje to make sure that all security protocols are in place to avoid an incident, will lead the Bulgarian delegation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kovacevski hinted that the most outspoken Bulgarian nationalists, such as Dzhambazhki, will not be allowed to enter the country and to cause incidents. A foundation is instead urging Bulgarians from Macedonia to organize and come to the church. Police patrols are closely examining vehicles with Bulgarian license plates that are coming toward Skopje, A1on reports. The paytoll points on the Kumanovo – Skopje highway are used to examine the vehicles that may carry nationalists headed to Skopje.