Police tighten security as North Macedonia, Bulgaria honour national hero

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Police stepped up security on Saturday as North Macedonia and Bulgaria commemorated a 19th-century revolutionary claimed by both neighbours as a hero at a ceremony expected to be attended by nationalists from the two countries.

The two Balkan states have had tense relations since 2020, when European Union member Bulgaria blocked the start of accession talks with North Macedonia over disputes relating to history and language.

Police sealed off the area around the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje, where North Macedonian officials laid wreaths on the 151st anniversary of the birth of Goce Delcev, a revolutionary hailed by both countries as a national hero in the fight for liberation from the Ottoman rule.

Orthodox priests conducted a religious ceremony near the tomb of Delcev, whose remains were exhumed and transferred to Skopje from the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in 1946.

A Bulgarian delegation was expected to arrive later on Saturday, in what would be the first time since 2019 that officials from both countries have commemorated Delcev together.

Both countries last summer accepted a French compromise deal for settling their disputes, under which North Macedonia agreed to amend the constitution to recognise a Bulgarian minority and Bulgaria in turn lifted its veto on North Macedonia's EU accession talks.

Though nationalists in both countries had opposed the deal, inter-state relations had been improving until January, when a North Macedonian of Bulgarian ethnicity was beaten up by a group of assailants. The incident prompted Sofia to briefly recall its ambassador from Skopje. North Macedonian authorities said they would investigate the attack.

Previous commemorations of Delcev have been peaceful, but some political analysts say the event has become a possible flashpoint this year due to what they describe as weak governments in both countries unable to garner wide support.

Bulgaria in April faces a fifth parliamentary election in two years.

(Additional reporting and writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by William Maclean)

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