Skopje, Macedonia, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A mere 100 or so kilometers separates Macedonia's capital Skopje from Serbia's restive southern province of Kosovo, but they might as well be a world apart.
While Serbs and ethnic Albanians clash in the streets of Pristina, Skopje's Albanians and Macedonians fight a war of words carried out against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, ski slopes and pristine lakes. All these could just as easily be found in Austria or Germany rather than in the region some predict could well be the next Balkan powder-keg.
The fear of a wider Balkan war is prompting discussions on an extended peacekeeping role for alliance troops in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But currently soldiers serving with the United Nation's 700-man Preventative Deployment Force, known as UNPREDEP, say they spend some days playing video games or standing watch for refugees from Kosovo.
The Organization For Security And Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has recently said it would step up its monitoring activities along Kosovo's borders with Albania and Macedonia to prevent any spillover of the crisis from the troubled Yugoslav province. But a call to the local OSCE office in Skopje found a spokesman there saying everything was "peaceful."
Hoards of press reporters could be seen in the lobbies of Skopje's hotels. Many also expressed frustration that they had yet to gain official approval from Belgrade for travel into Kosovo. Some news teams said they had been camped out for two weeks, with no end to their vigil in sight.
A visit to Skopje's central shopping district found throngs of Macedonians strolling peacefully past stores brimming with food, books, cosmetics, electronics, shoes and clothing from Europe and the West. Mihajlo Pesev, Manager of Compass Tours Travel Agency, told RFE/RL that business was good and that there had been no "fall-out" in incoming or outgoing travel, as a result of the Kosovo conflict. However if the situation worsens, Pesev said, it could have a negative effect on upcoming summer tours to Montenegro by hindering border crossings.
Across the stone bridge and the Vardar River, the old Turkish bazaar was full of locals stocking up on bread or pastries for the weekend. Nearby, teen-aged boys swooshed along on skateboards and roller blades, apparently without a care in the world.
Taking a taxi in Skopje or turning on the television conveys a different story. Newscasts in both Albanian and Macedonian were filled with pictures of the unrest in Kosovo and the taxi drivers were abound with opinion.
But the Mayor of nearby Tetovo, Alajdin Demiri said a country besieged by reporters was probably not a good thing. "Reporters are always chasing bad news," he said, "and now they are chasing stories in Macedonia." And he added that "It does not bode well for the future."