London's diplomatic community is the biggest in the world after the United Nations in New York, and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union it has been growing faster than ever, as previously unheard-of countries attain statehood. Forty new missions have opened since 1990, and the total is now 137. On Thursday Belarus -formerly the Soviet republic of Belorussia - joins the club. Last Friday it was the turn of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

You do not actually have to climb into a silk-lined state landau and drive ponderously through Hyde Park in a top hat to become an ambassador: the significant transfer of documents takes place in the Foreign Office behind closed doors, and may happen several weeks before the ceremony. Nontheless, however small, obscure or controversial your state may be, the day will finally dawn when you have to go to see the Queen. Many new ambassadors have never undergone anything like this in their lives, as their newborn states had an embryonic diplomatic corps, or none at all. They were plucked from other professions and told to get on with it.

Risto Nikovski, though representing one of the smallest (population about two million) and least-known states, is an old hand on the diplomatic circuit, having represented Yugoslavia in Cuba, China and elsewhere before the federation collapsed. His last job was in the foreign ministry of his new country's fledgling government, but nine months ago he was dispatched to London to open the mission.

Like many new envoys, his most nagging problem has been to find the right building. Since arriving he has shared a couple of dingy offices, lined with orange hessian and perched above High Holborn, with the Macedonia Steel Corporation.

'A former colleague of mine in the government visited last week, Mr Nikovski recalls with a trace of bitterness, 'and said, you've been here for seven months? I couldn't stand it for three weeks.

Mr Nikovski, who commutes by Tube from his flat in Bayswater, has no choice. He has no staff at all - he always answers the phone - and when he came close to clinching a deal on a building recently, the financing arrangements fell through at the last minute.

On the morning of Friday 20 May, however, these problems were set aside as he welcomed journalists from Macedonia and The Independent to his flat and performed a reverse striptease: white evening shirt fastened with pearl studs and with little vents in the side 'so I can put my hand in to check that my heart is still beating; white wing collar; white bow tie; white waistcoat; black tailcoat with silk facings; black top hat.

An hour was then nervously killed until the lift doors suddenly parted to reveal the beaming figure of Sir James Weatherall, Marshal (sic) of the Diplomatic Corps, wearing his admiral's uniform and strung with braid and medals.

People gather in the street as in the aftermath of a murder, but keeping their distance and smiling and pointing. The state landau - its hood opened on Sir James's orders, defying predictions of rain - is lined with blue silk, like a jewellery box. The Marshal and Mr Nikovski climb into it. A closed coach of black lacquer follows behind, but it is empty: protocol requires a second coach to transport the embassy's staff, even when, as today, there are no staff. Mr Nikovski's wife, Suzana, follows behind in a Foreign Office Vauxhall. The rest of the family stays put.

As the landau perambulates slowly through Hyde Park towards Buckingham Palace, people crane for a good stare at the famous dignitary passing by, then turn away with looks of faint puzzlement.

An hour later it was all over: Mr Nikovski bowed the correct number of times and advanced into the royal presence left foot forward; he didn't forget the crucial envelope (such a thing has been known to happen), he presented it with both hands and it contained the necessary documents (though the Queen was not so rude as to check).

Informal conversation with the sovereign ensued, Suzana was introduced, then they set off once again, the state landau and the Vauxhall sandwiching the empty black box, to a hotel for the reception.

Now Mr Nikovski was free to reflect that no one can deny him the right to be referred to as 'Excellency'; and that, according to Debrett's, only 13 men in England, starting with the Duke of Edinburgh and ending with the Lord Privy Seal, outrank him. Staff or no staff. Embassy or no embassy.

----------------------------------------------------------------- New Embassies in London since 1991 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Belarus Macedonia Lithuania Azerbaijan Albania Estonia Armenia Latvia Ukraine Slovenia Croatia Namibia Eritrea -----------------------------------------------------------------

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