`I DON'T care what soldiers come here as long as they can ensure peace," sighs Stojna Trajkova, pausing on her rounds between tables at a cafe on the Vardar River in downtown Skopje, Macedonia.
"We are afraid of famine and war," the waitress says before shuffling off to take more orders for the barbequed lamb patties that have been a favorite here since the Ottoman Turks invaded in the 14th century.
A United States aircraft landed here July 5 with the first 26 US troops sent to join the United Nations peacekeeping operations in former Yugoslavia. In all, 300 troops from the Berlin-based US 502nd Infantry will supplement 700 Scandinavian troops de-ployed in Macedonia earlier this year.
But as the first US troops arrived, questions lingered over President Clinton's motives for joining an operation far from the more politically risky UN efforts in Croatia and Bosnia.
Of the six former Yugoslav republics, Macedonia has seen the least upheaval. To the north, hundreds of thousands have died and some 2 million have been displaced since 1991.
The UN operation in Macedonia is the first ever mounted to stop a war before it begins.
"A war in Macedonia would mean a wider conflict in the whole region," Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Popovski warns. Locked between Asia and Europe, it is a remnant of the larger Macedonia that was once ruled by Alexander the Great and included parts of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania.
Its turbulent history mirrors that of the Balkans. Some 500 years of Turkish rule were followed by wars in 1912 and 1913 that led to the region's partition between Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria at the end of World War I.
Serbia brought the largest part with it into former Yugoslavia. It was separated and made the republic of Macedonia by the late Communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, after World War II.
After Tito's Yugoslavia crumbled, Macedonia seceded in 1992. But it is still unrecognized by the US and Europe, and officials here worry about Serbia's expansionist policies.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic foreswears territorial designs on his southern neighbor, but Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov remains deeply suspicious of his Serbian counterpart. Serbia refuses to recognize Macedonia's independence.
"This only leads us to conclude that not everything has been resolved in Serbia with regard to Macedonia," Mr. Gligorov said in a Monitor interview July 6. Gligorov asserts that Milosevic tried to persuade him at a June 1 meeting to "try by ourselves to resolve our mutual relations and not involve any foreign forces in this."
Gligorov also cites numerous public statements by Milosevic's ultranationalist supporters, who claim that Macedonia was actually once "southern Serbia" and that its people are really Serbs.
"People of authority" in Serbia "have direct aspirations toward Macedonia," he charges.
Gligorov has good reason to be concerned. Milosevic engineered the Serbian conquests of most of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a third of Croatia in a plan to form a "greater Serbia" that would comprise those territories, Serbia, and Montenegro. There is a tiny Serbian minority in Macedonia.
But the greatest concern is that Milosevic will move to secure Serbia's southern province of Kosovo, in which the 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority is seeking independence.
A conflict in Kosovo would unleash a destabilizing flood of refugees into Macedonia.
Albania has said it would protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. To do so, its forces would have to cross Macedonia. Furthermore, extremists among Macedonia's 350,000-strong ethnic Albanian minority would rise to support their ethnic brethren.
Such an attack against Serbia would give Milosevic a pretext to reassert Serbia's claim to Macedonia. Bulgaria, which also harbors a historic claim, might then become involved, drawing in Greece and Turkey. This is the scenario the UN hopes to avert.
The UN force is too small to turn back an invasion. Instead, UN soldiers on Macedonia's 250-mile border with Albania and Serbia, watch for signs of trouble.
UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) officials openly assert that the US soldiers are not needed in Macedonia. That has helped fuel charges the US deployment is simply a token gesture to deflect criticism over the Clinton administration's refusal to play a larger role elsewhere in UN operations.
But Gligorov insists the US presence in Macedonia represents a political trip-wire that Milosevic will not dare to cross.
"The coming of the American forces ... serves as a warning to all potential aggressors," he says. "I believe the message is clear."
Many Macedonians, however, are skeptical, given the West's dismal record in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"If we have to have foreign troops, I prefer Americans," says Tomo Nikoloski, an electrical engineer. "But we know that if push comes to shove, UNPROFOR and the Americans won't fight for us."