The fact that President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia took it all in his sprightly stride illustrates the extraordinary resilience of a man who, less than nine months ago, was the target of an assassination attempt that left him with severe head injuries and caused many people to agonise over his country's future. Speaking to the Independent, Mr Gligorov said he could not be absolutely confident that the Macedonian authorities would ever discover who was behind the car bomb that exploded in Skopje on 3 October 1995 along the president's normal route to work.
But, he said: "The actual attackers were not important. The most important thing was that those who were behind it did not realise their objectives." These aims, said Mr Gligorov, were to prevent Macedonia from achieving permanent political stability, from improving its relations with neighbouring countries and from entering mainstream European institutions as an internationally recognised independent state.
The car bomb exploded at a time when Macedonia was poised for major breakthroughs in its relations with Greece and rump Yugoslavia. "But I wouldn't just mention those two points. After that, Macedonia became a member of all the important and relevant European organisations. We joined the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe, and we signed Nato's Partnership for Peace."
Mr Gligorov would not elaborate on his remarks, but the strong implication was that some political forces - external or internal - were determined to sabotage his efforts to secure Macedonia's entry into the international community on the terms available in October 1995. In respect of Greece, these terms required Mr Gligorov to change Macedonia's flag and constitution so that they no longer pressed what the Greek government said was a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of Macedonia.
At the time, the most vehement opposition to this compromise was coming from militant emigre groups in Australia and North America, some of whom dream of a Greater Macedonian state with borders touching the Aegean Sea - including land that currently belongs to Greece. These groups denounced Mr Gligorov's deal with Greece as "treason to the Macedonian nation", but there has been no clear evidence to link them (or radical nationalists in domestic Macedonian politics) to the assassination attempt.
It is a measure of Mr Gligorov's personal contribution to Macedonia's stability that, upon hearing of the car bomb, politicians and commentators across the Balkans instantly expressed fears for his country's survival in its present form.
Mr Gligorov said that the real threats to Balkan stability came from two other quarters: Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo, scene of a prolonged struggle between the majority Albanian population and their Serbian rulers. "Peace in Bosnia has not been cemented, while on the other hand the Kosovo problem is still open. Together, these two factors may bring about the destabilisation of the whole region," he said.
Macedonia, whose population of 2 million includes more than 400,000 ethnic Albanians, was particularly concerned about an influx of Albanians from Kosovo and Albania itself. Mr Gligorov said: "Many have found work in Macedonia and are seeking citizenship, and among them are people with radical ideas," referring to calls for a Greater Albania incorporating Albania, Kosovo and western Macedonia. Commenting on recent agitation for an Albanian-language university in Macedonia, he noted that primary and secondary education was already available in Albanian and promised to establish two Albanian- language teacher training colleges in the future.