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Heads up – Embassy 8 – May 2008

Macedonia – Balanced diplomacy

Diplomacy, as in life, is all about balance, says Marija Efremova, Macedonia's new Ambassador to London, motioning to a photo of her son and husband and another of her presenting her credentials to The Queen.

A lawyer by profession and a talented linguist, Efremova joined the new Macedonian foreign ministry after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, where she worked in the international law and consular department.

But pursuing balanced diplomacy in the Balkans in those early days was difficult. Bitter ethnic wars broke out in neighbouring countries, culminating with the Kosovo war, which threatened to upset Macedonia's own delicately balanced ethnic mix.

In 2001 Macedonia nearly tipped over into conflict and there was concern that Kosovo's recent declaration of independence might also cause problems. Yet, despite these external pressures, the country has remained united and the Ambassador gives her reassurance it will continue to do so following the recent elections.

"We are in a region where any change can provoke some instability," she admits, but adds that Macedonia's stability is the result of good cooperation between the country's two ethnic groups and support from the EU and other allies. "But above all," she says, "it is the strong desire of our people to have a stable country that has kept us together."

Asked if the prize of EU and Nato membership could bring stability to Macedonia's neighbours in the Western Balkans, she replies firmly that prospective members should be stable before joining the Euro-Atlantic clubs.

Speaking of Macedonia's hoped-for membership, she says: "It should not be a case of us importing stability from the EU but us exporting stability to Europe and the rest of the world."

Efremova believes her country, in its stabilising role in the region as well as other conflict-prone regions such as Afghanistan, has proved itself worthy of Nato membership. She is therefore disappointed that Macedonia was not invited to join the alliance at the Bucharest Summit, following Greece's veto over Macedonia's name, which it shares with a Greek province.

The dispute has dogged the country since independence. The Ambassador believes the UN is best placed to resolve the issue, but still insists Macedonia has a right to self-determination.

She hopes Greece will come to realise that Macedonia has no territorial ambitions and that the bilateral dispute will be resolved soon. "All Macedonia wants is a good relationship with our neighbour and all other countries in our region, something we have strived to do for the last 17 years," she says.

On the EU front, she believes Macedonia will begin accession negotiations by the end of the French presidency in December - and hopes that during her present assignment she will raise the EU's flag next to the Macedonian flag outside the Embassy.

In the meantime, Efremova has a full agenda, promoting Macedonia as a good destination for British investors - from IT, to pharmaceuticals and cultural and health tourism.

She also intends to work closely with the 40-80,000-strong Macedonian diaspora in the UK to strengthen the cultural bridge between the two nations. In particular, she is going to lobby hard to lift the visa regime, which she feels is deeply unfair to the young generation of Macedonians.

Allaying fears that lifting visas would result in an influx of immigrants, the Ambassador says the removal of visas might, in fact, trigger a return of Macedonians who have remained in the UK for fear of forfeiting their visa if they went home.

Ambassador Efremova also hopes to find time to enjoy London. A part-time painter, the Ambassador exhibited some of her art during her last posting in Rome and London has already inspired her to pick up her paintbrush again.

HE Mrs Marija Efremova

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