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Eastern Europe Risks Losing UN Top Job Race


The four Eastern European candidates for the post of UN Secretary-General face serious problems - three could be voted down because they are male, while Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova could become a casualty to politics.

Miodrag Vlahovic
Miodrag Vlahovic.

Following the fourth straw poll of candidates for the post of UN Secretary-General last Friday, several things have become clear.

The first is that the top five candidates are still four men and one woman; four Eastern Europeans and one Western European. So far, the Western European, Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and more recently the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has positioned himself as the candidate to beat. But he faces serious difficulties. 

Many countries feel that it is the turn of Eastern Europe, which has never held the position of Secretary-General in seventy years of UN history. Most significantly, these countries include the Russian Federation, which will chair the decisive Security Council meetings in November, and is also of course one of the Council’s five permanent members.

Guterres’ problem with Russia is faced in reverse by former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is currently championed by Moscow. Jeremic has a cosy relationship with Moscow over Kosovo and has long been opposed to NATO.

Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia’s foreign minister, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, has been calling for a reset of relations with Moscow. It seems that his current EU-related position has helped him a lot to significantly improve his standings on the list of candidates. 

Meanwhile former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim has risen without trace to take an improbable spot among the leaders, though almost half the Security Council - seven of the 15 - are opposed to him.

All four of them – Guterres, Lajcak, Jeremic and Kerim – face a fundamental problem with the more progressive parts of the UN. They are men, and just as there has been no Eastern European at the UN’s helm in the last seven decades, there has been no woman.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova is the only one of the women currently in the race who has received more “encourage” than “discourage” votes from UN Security Council members. 

If the Russians are serious about wanting an Eastern European, and the Americans and British are serious about wanting a woman, she remains the obvious choice who can unite the Security Council behind her candidacy.

However, the centre-right European People’s Party, EPP, in an extraordinary case of translating the petty rivalries of the EU to the global scale, has decided that it must block Bokova, who comes from the centre-left. 

Pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been mounting on Bulgaria’s government to support the candidate chosen by the EPP - Kristalina Georgieva, the technocrat vice-president of the European Commission in charge of budget and human resources. Although she is respected in Brussels, very few in UN circles believe that Georgieva has any real chance even if nominated: she has no diplomatic experience and Moscow has already made it clear that it will veto her because she implemented EU sanctions against the Russian Federation. 

She will meet the same fate as the Costa Rican Christina Figueres and the Moldovan Natalia Gherman, who have been championed respectively by the US and the UK, but who totally failed to gain traction within the UN Security Council. Georgieva is actually in an even worse situation, as neither Brussels nor Berlin has a vote at the UN to support her.

Cancelling Bokova’s candidacy – despite her good chance of winning – to replace her with Georgieva – who is a no-hoper – might seem to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov as a good way to please Bulgaria’s financial backers. But it would dramatically backfire as it would definitely remove any chance for Bulgaria to get a UN Secretary-General. This self-inflicted wound would be an unprecedented humiliation for Bulgaria.

Borissov is an experienced fighter who has overcome big domestic political challenges; he now faces the most serious test of his international credibility in his career. His political future will probably depend on his decision this week.

Miodrag Vlahovic is a former minister of foreign affairs of Montenegro and the first Montenegrin ambassador to Washington.

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