From the outside, life in this Old World, Turkish-flavored capital city seems normal, despite a deadly war for loot and land only 30 miles away across the snow-topped Shara Mountain range that separates Macedonia from Kosovo.
The cafes are full. A 10-year-old girl in a pink leotard has a birthday party at McDonald's. Banners for a music festival read: "Make Blues, Not War."
Yet many ordinary people here say they worry that their struggling economy will crumble further, since 70 percent of Macedonian exports go to war-torn Serbia. Many also worry that a pro-Serbian sentiment after the NATO bombing will push them further away from ties to the West - leaving them isolated in a Balkan neighborhood of Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Serbia that has historically been hostile.
But what most concerns them is that the flow of refugees in recent days could upset the delicate social contract between Macedonians and Albanians here, and turn the country into another Bosnia - or Kosovo. They worry that problems of potential instability are not taken seriously by policymakers in NATO countries.
"Do you know what kind of impact even 60,000 people make in a country of only 2 million?" says Ljuben Paunovski, a member of Parliament and spokesman for the largest ethnic Macedonian party in the ruling coalition. "For us, the question is how long the Albanian refugees will stay. If they don't leave quickly it will be a problem, economically and socially."
Since the Serb ethnic cleansing of Kosovo started a year ago, some 250,000 refugees have found their way to Macedonia. About half of those have come in recent days, and between 60,000 and 100,000 are living with local families. Many are bitter about the treatment they received at the now-notorious Blace border crossing, when the Macedonian government left Kosovar Albanians to stand in the mud for days grabbing for bread, and where many were separated from their families. The Macedonian Army redeployed Albanian regulars to Albanian-majority towns like Tetovo and Gostivar, leaving the border to be patrolled by ethnic Macedonians.
THAT official treatment angers the 30 percent Albanian citizenry here, which has long felt suppressed and excluded from jobs and equal rights. Officially, the Albanians of Macedonia have remained quiet during the NATO bombing, which they support. Since December, a new government in Macedonia has included, for the first time, an Albanian party in its ruling coalition - something widely regarded as a promising step toward greater ethnic harmony.
But the rhetoric of Albanian nationalists, particularly in western Macedonia, which borders Albania, has slowly been radicalizing its constituency at the grass-roots level. During the Blace event, the Albanian party was kept out of the decisionmaking process in government, with many of its Cabinet ministers forced to get information from Western television. Arber Xhaferi, who heads the Albanian Democratic Party Alliance, said in Parliament that the Macedonian government was treating Albanians "the same way Serbs are treating Albanians." Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, a statesman during the Bosnian crisis when he kept the ardent Macedonian nationalists at bay, took sides last week in a statement that the Kosovar refugees should be "sent to Albania."
The real test could come in eight or nine months, analysts say, if Kosovo is not made secure for its former inhabitants, and Macedonian police come to the doors of Albanian families and ask to relocate their refugee-guests.
"If they come to my door I will do everything I can to stop them," says one Albanian in the old part of town, while unloading and reloading a revolver. "They cannot take away my cousins. I have given them a guarantee."
"I'm afraid we will have trouble," says one young Macedonian who works at a sports complex. "The trouble will come from the Albanians. You don't know them the way I do. I live here."
"A crisis in Macedonia would have the worst outcome in the region," says an American diplomat in Europe. "Macedonia is the Malaysia of the Balkans - the only state that has struck a reasonable bargain between the ethnic groups."
Oddly enough for the Balkans, perhaps, such dark scenarios have no precedent between Albanians and Macedonians. The two sides have never been at war.
When they met in 1991, after Macedonia's independence, the two sides found little in common. Macedonians are Slavs; Albanians are not. The two languages are as different as chalk and cheese. Unlike in Bosnia, where the intermarriage rate among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims was fairly high in places like Sarajevo, a Macedonian-Albanian wedding is nearly unheard of.
Add to this a feeling of ill-treatment among Macedonian Albanians. The first Macedonian Constitution excluded them as equal partners. At the University of Skopje, only 2 percent of the student body was Albanian. Those conditions have been steadily improving; the Constitution was revised to include minority rights. But the atmosphere is still "ethnicized."
"If you ask a Macedonian does he want a Serb or an Albanian for a brother, he will choose a Serb," says Zoran Dimitrovski, deputy editor of Focus, a local biweekly.
In the current dynamic here, in fact, pro-Serb feelings are growing. Partly this is the result of a goading campaign by Serbian media - Serb TV channels still operate here. Serb agents provocateurs are also active in Macedonia. Police sources told the Monitor that the demonstrations and attack on the US Embassy last month were orchestrated by the Yugoslav secret service. Macedonians may not want an immediate political affiliation with Serbia. But the ethnic solidarity Serbs are offering is playing strongly on anti-Albanian fears here.
Closer to the pocketbook, Macedonia has not leapt into the global economy. Its markets are still in the Balkans. Macedonia suffered from inflation and from sanctions against the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian war, and is still closing factories.
The role of the international community is crucial, say experts and politicians here. The European Union responded Friday, opening the door to an affiliated membership. The question is: If the West did not anticipate clearly enough the result of the Kosovo bombings against Milosevic, is it accurately reading the situation in Macedonia?
"We are in a very sensitive position right now," says Mr. Paunovski, who says his party is committed to working closely with the Albanian party. "What the international community does now will make the difference in terms of our long-term stability."