The Washington Diplomat / July 1997
By Larry Luxner
When she was only nine, Ljubica Z. Acevska and her family left their tiny Macedonian village of Capari (population 400) and resettled in a slightly bigger metropolis halfway around the world -- Mansfield, Ohio.
By the time she graduated from Ohio State University in 1980, Acevska -- having spent her formative years in the hometown of Civil War hero Gen. William Sherman -- was well-steeped in American history and ready to embark on a career in international business.
But the young woman felt another calling, and after a few years working for an import-export company decided to devote her professional life to helping her small but troubled Balkan nation. The big moment came in November 1995, when Acevska was appointed Macedonia's ambassador to the United States.
"I was a U.S. citizen, which I had to renounce in order to become the ambassador," she lamented during a recent interview at the small but upscale Macedonian Embassy on 30th and K Street. "This is something very personal. I'm very committed to this."
Indeed she is. One of about 200,000 Macedonian-Americans, Acevska is a recipient of Ohio State's 1996 Alumni Medalist Award for "international distinction in service to humanity." She's also one of only nine women ambassadors in Washington, turning heads in what she concedes is an "old man's world."
"I presented my credentials in February 1996. However, I've been representing Macedonia since January 1992 as a liaison officer," said the diplomat, who declined to give her age. "In early 1991, when it became apparent that Yugoslavia was disintegrating, I recommended that Macedonia open an office in Washington to work on establishing relations with the United States. In August 1991, I met with the president of Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov. He agreed, and asked me to represent the country."
Acevska calls Gligorov -- who survived an assassination attempt two years ago -- a "true visionary, always looking to the future rather than haggling over the past."
Last month, the 80-year-old politician met with President Clinton on his first official visit to Washington since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia on Sept. 8, 1991. Clinton, calling the landlocked nation of two million inhabitants a model of stability in a very turbulent region, praised Gligorov "for his statesmanship in resolving differences with his neighbors and promoting ethnic tolerance at home."
That says a lot for a country whose flag, name and basic right to exist has been called into question, and whose economy has been shattered by unrelated blockades that have crippled Macedonia's trade with its two biggest neighbors, Greece and Serbia.
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, says Acevska, "we lost 70% of our market, which was a great blow to the economy."
Nevertheless, following the path of breakaway Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia -- the poorest of the six republics of Yugoslavia -- was admitted to the UN in 1993. But because of loud and bitter Greek objections to the name Macedonia (it's also a region in Greece), many countries including the United States still insist on referring to the new country as "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," or FYROM for short. Some American publications have even gone so far as to call citizens of that country FYROMians, out of deference to U.S. official policy and their Greek readers.
That FYROM business doesn't sit well with the ambassador.
"Over 150 countries recognize Macedonia. Unfortunately, there are some countries that have established relations with us as FYROM." However, she added, "in September we changed the flag and the constitution, and made some statements satisfactory to Greece. Now we have liaison offices in our respective capitals."
Macedonia now has embassies in 20 countries including Canada and Australia, home to two of the largest expatriate Macedonian communities in the world.
"In the beginning, people were questioning whether we could exist as a country," she says. "Everybody was against us, and there was a lot of pressure from the Greek lobby [in the United States]. But we've proved ourselves. Last year, despite all the obstacles, we had economic growth for the first time in 10 years."
This year, Macedonia will receive $17 million in U.S. assistance -- less than the cost of the brand-new U.S. Embassy in Skopje, which was inaugurated in March 1996.
And while trade between the United States and Macedonia comes to only $40 million a year, Acevska says that'll increase dramatically as foreign investors exploit the country's opportunities, which she calls "an undiscovered jewel for business." U.S. multinationals already active there include Coca-Cola, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco. Macedonia's major exports are wine, tobacco and textiles. "We're so strong [in textiles] the U.S. has even hit us with quotas," she says.
Indeed, the International Monetary Fund recently praised Macedonia as "an island of stability" and the safest country in the Balkans.
The main reason for that is the presence of 550 American and 550 Scandinavian troops along Macedonia's border with Serbia. The troops -- who have been there since 1993 -- were sent at Gligorov's request to prevent Serb forces from overrunning Macedonia and allowing the Bosnian conflict to spread out of control. So far, that policy has worked pretty well.
"Macedonia is one of the most successful foreign-policy stories of the United States," the diplomat told us. "We have very good political and military relations with the U.S." She added that "what differentiates Macedonia from the other countries is that, when we see a problem, we try to deal with it rather than letting it fester."
Yet one of Macedonia's festering -- and most serious -- problems is ethnic unrest.
According to the 1994 census, the country's population consists of Macedonians (65%), Albanians (23%), Turks (4%) and Serbs (2%), with smaller numbers of Vlachs and Gypsies. The predominantly Muslim Albanian minority, however, 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.
Acevska dismisses those charges, pointing to a variety of TV programs and newspapers in Albanian, and K-12 education in both Albanian and Turkish.
"People are always focusing on negative things. I say let's look at the positive," she said. "We're trying to make all Macedonians feel like they're part of the country, so they won't be attracted to extremism." The ambassador adds that, despite the unsolved assassination attempt against Gligorov in October 1995, "extremism has never taken hold in Macedonia like it has in some other countries."
Asked if there's any chance the political unrest now gripping Albania could spill over into neighboring Macedonia, she said: "What's happening in Albania is of concern to us because we have a large Albanian community. But I don't think there are any dangers of [Macedonia] unraveling. That's why we're trying to make sure all the ethnic groups are integrated politically."
Shifting gears, we asked Acevska what it's like to be a female ambassador in Washington.
"Being a woman in a high position is unique. You have to work harder to prove yourself. Of course there was resentment [in Macedonia], because Washington is the most important posting for a diplomat. But people were already used to me."
She adds that even among Americans, "it's difficult to make the connection. Some people call here, leaving messages for the ambassador to return the call. They think I'm the secretary. When I tell them they're speaking to the ambassador, they don't believe me."
The diplomat, who has spoken at her alma mater as well as at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, said her proudest moment was when her parents accompa-nied her to the Oval Office when she presented her credentials to President Clinton.
As to what she might go when her tour of duty expires, Acevska says "I don't know what the next step will be. After Washington, anything would be a letdown."