The Washington Diplomat / December 2004
By Larry Luxner
At 32, Nikola Dimitrov is the youngest ambassador in Washington — and his country is even younger.
Rising out of the ashes of the dying Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia was born only 13 years ago. And by the way, it's now PC to call the country Macedonia, now that the Bush administration has finally done away with the awkward and contrived Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) moniker that had been forced upon the country since 1991.
Dimitrov said that Nov. 4 — the day the State Department officially tossed FYROM into the trashbin of history —will be remembered as "a great day" for his nation.
"It brought confidence to my countrymen's hearts," the ambassador said in a lengthy interview last month. "People who are not involved think this is just another typical Balkan dispute over symbols. But for us, it became a security issue, because there's a perception that provisional names are for provisional countries. People associate FYROM with the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, and with instability."
FYROM, which Macedonians have hated for years, was a concession to Greece, which vehemently opposes the "Republic of Macedonia" name on the grounds that it implied territorial ambitions on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia.
Following the path of breakaway Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia — the poorest of the six republics of Yugoslavia — declared independence on Sept. 8, 1991, and was admitted to the UN in 1993.
But because of loud and bitter Greek objections, many countries including the United States insisted on referring to the nation of 2.2 million inhabitants as FYROM. Some U.S. publications even went so far as to call citizens of that country FYROMians, out of deference to official State Department protocol and their Greek readers.
Greece imposed two embargoes: the first lasted from August to December 1992, the second from February 1994 to September 1995. Both blocked Macedonian access to Greek ports and severely affected trade with nations to the south. And because of the strict UN sanctions against Serbia, Macedonia lost 70% of its market, which was a great blow to the economy.
Today, however, all the Balkan countries have diplomatic ties, and Greece ranks as the No. 1 foreign investor in Macedonia.
"We have very good relations. This name issue has been the only open issue left," Dimitrov said. "I firmly believe that we have common national interests in terms of having a stable region that will one day be part of the European Union and NATO."
He points out that Macedonia amended its constitution at the request of the Greek government in 1995 "to explicitly say that we do not have territorial aspirations toward any other country." One possible solution to the name dispute, he said, "might be to have one name for our bilateral relations with Greece, and another name for the rest of the world."
Dimitrov, an easygoing sort who speaks fluent English and Serbo-Croatian as well as his native Macedonian tongue, has a law degree from the University of St. Cyril & Methodius in Skopje, and a master's in international law from Kings College in Cambridge, England. He began his Foreign Ministry career as a human-rights lawyer in 1996, then in 2000 became deputy foreign minister.
After six months, he resigned in protest at Macedonia's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a move that infuriated Chinese authorities in Beijing. He noted that "it's not up to a small country like Macedonia to have a say with regard to that problem."
Dimitrov then became national security adviser to the late President Kiro Gligorov and worked closely with him during the country's crisis of 2001, in which 90 people died in clashes between Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces. As a reward, he was sent to Washington to replace the country's first ambassador, Ljubica Z. Acevska, who had served since 1995.
"I am probably in between a career diplomat and a political appointtee. I'm not a member of any political parties in Macedonia," said Dimitrov, who's here with his wife, Maja, and their 5-year-old daughter Jana.
As in many formerly communist regimes, Macedonia, upon independence from Yugoslavia, quickly replaced its old guard with young, Western-educated technocrats.
A case in point: before Dimitrov took up his post in Washington three years ago this month, the youngest ambassador in town was from Latvia — another newly independent Eastern European nation.
"With countries in transition, trying to change their economic and political system, it often happens that we have generational gaps," he said. "People who worked too long in another environment are not quite used to these new things. So that's why there are many opportunities open to young people."
It hasn't been easy, however. Ethnic tensions at continue to divide Dimitrov's landlocked little country, which according to the last census is populated by Macedonians (65%), Albanians (24%), Turks (4%), Serbs (2%) and smaller numbers of Vlachs, Romas and other minorities.
The predominantly Muslim Albanian minority has long contended that their numbers are actually closer to 40%, and that the government officially discriminates against them in ways ranging from denying them Albanian-language education to making it difficult for Albanians to become citizens of Macedonia.
In fact, proportional employment of the ethnic Albanians in the administration was a key provision of a Western-brokered agreement that ended the 2001 hostilities.
"We have always tried to develop good relations with our neighbors," he said. "We cooperated with the international community in the Kosovo crisis and we accepted 350,000 refugees from Kosovo, which at the time was 18% of our population. Most of them have since gone back to Kosovo, though the Roma are still in Macedonia because they don't think it's safe to go back."
As violent as it was, Dimitrov said, Macedonia's crisis of 2001 was "incomparable" to the bloodshed that engulfed the other former Yugoslav republics.
"Macedonia was the only country that got its independence from Belgrade peacefully," he said. "Macedonia is the last hope for a functioning multiethnic democracy in the Balkans. We're still multiethnic and we intend to remain that way."
Still, the State Department's recognition of the name Macedonia didn't happen in a vacuum. It was a calculated risk by Washington— done at the cost of infuriating its Greek allies — to discourage Macedonian voters from approving a referendum scheduled later that week which would have repealed the Ohrid Framework Agreement, a package of civil rights granted to ethnic Albanians after the crisis of 2001.
In Athens, reaction was swift and angry. Greek Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis complained to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller that the decision to drop FYROM would have "multiple negative consequences." A Foreign Ministry official said Secretary of State Colin Powell later phoned Molyviatis to "assure him that the decision is not a turn against Greece."
Nevertheless, the administration's gamble paid off, because the referendum was defeated with only 25.6% of eligible voters even casting ballots — which is exactly what both the U.S. and Macedonian governments wanted.
"The United States chose the timing [of the announcement] when they thought a reassurance and a positive message of stability would be needed and most useful," said Dimitrov. "The referendum was based on fear for the future of the country. The recognition of the constitutional name addresses that fear and contradicts it."
Part of that agreement deals with broadening the jurisdiction of local authorities in the areas of health, education, infrastructure and environment. Another part deals with territorial reorganization. When Macedonia's internal boundaries are redrawn, there will be only 80 municipalities, as opposed to 123 before.
And under the new law, in municipalities where a particular minority comprises at least 20% of the population, the mother tongue of that community will become an official language. So in the towns of Struga and Kichevo, for instance, street signs will begin appearing in Albanian as well as Macedonian.
"In every country, the redrawing of boundaries is a controversial issue. It's especially difficult when there are ethnic issues involved," he said. "Those two cities will now have Albanian majorities. That's why this law was so controversial. It raised fears that it would cause migration of Macedonians from these cities."
Asked if Macedonians and Albanians get along, Dimitrov replied that the two groups "coexist" even if relations aren't the friendliest.
"I'd say the new generation is more inclined to interact. And I would say there's a profound understanding that we have to build this country together. We're bridging that gap, but it's going to be a very long process. Integrating into the European Union would help."
But EU membership is a long way off for Macedonia, a poor country suffering from high unemployment and a shortage of foreign investment.
Dimitrov said the country would be hurt even more in 2005, when U.S. quotas on textiles will be removed, forcing Macedonia to compete on a level playing field with low-wage countries like China and India. That could further add to problems in Macedonia as factories that produce coats, shirts and suits go out of business for lack of customers.
A more short-term goal for Macedonia is membership in NATO. Dimitrov said an invitation to join NATO could come as early as 2006. To that end, the country has around 30 peacekeeping soldiers in Iraq, and a similar-sized contingent in Afghanistan.
"While working on our multiethnic democracy at home, we want to demonstrate our readiness to help where international missions are needed," he said. "Being on the other side of that story, we have benefitted from international peacekeeping missions, so we know how valuable that assistance is."
Next June, the embassy is moving to another building, the former French consulate on Wyoming Avenue. Dimitrov hopes the move will convince his government to allocate more funds to the embassy, which currently has a staff of 10.
Yet the road ahead is filled with potholes.
Just last month, for example, Macedonia's prime minister quit his job over disagreements with ethnic Albanian coalition partners.
Hari Kostov, who became prime minister in May, had accused the Albanian Union for Integration Party of promoting partisan interests, nepotism and corruption — though Dimitrov downplayed Kostov's Nov. 15 resignation and denied press reports that it had "set off a government crisis" in the Balkan state.
"This resignation of our prime minister does not mean there is a political crisis in the country," Dimitrov insisted. "He was not a member of any political party, and this was a personal decision. He found it difficult to work in that capacity. We're going to have a new prime minister way ahead of the constitutional deadlines, and Macedonia will continue to pursue its policies. I have a feeling that we are in the last stage of the tunnel, so to speak. We are leaving our problems behind, and hope to have a better future."