|Irina Bokova and Kristalina Georgieva.|
The problem is both these women come from the same country, Bulgaria, where the government now finds itself in a possible no-win situation: By snubbing one, they could lose their best chance ever to put a compatriot in such a prominent international role.
Neither UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova nor Kristalina Georgieva, a European Commission vice president, would talk publicly about their UN ambitions. But as the campaign to succeed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon approaches in early 2016, a behind-the-scenes primary — full of jostling, polling, diplomatic posturing and whispering campaigns — has emerged in Sofia, Brussels, Washington and Moscow.
Under a new U.N.-mandated nomination process, the government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov must put forward its candidate for the secretary-general slot early next year. “Borissov is in a difficult position at the moment,” said Kancho Stoychev, a Bulgarian pollster and Bokova supporter. “Kristalina Georgieva is from his party and on the other side he has a very capable lady.”
Whomever the government’s chooses could fall prey to international politicking. In this version of a diplomatic Catch-22, if Bulgaria puts forward Georgieva and Moscow thinks Washington swayed the choice, Russia could shift its support to another candidate. Ditto for Washington, if Bukova gets the nod over Georgieva in a way that’s seen to please Moscow.
A certain level of hype
A Bulgarian polling firm tested the two women’s appeal within the country earlier this year, with Georgieva coming out on top. Her supporters note that she’s well-liked by Victoria Nuland, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and former World Bank head Robert Zoellick. The very fact that we are seriously considering a Bulgarian is creating a certain level of hype
Because of her ties to the current government, sources say that Georgieva, who previously served as the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, is more likely to get the nod. But that isn’t stopping Bokova, who has started an aggressive informal PR push to promote her candidacy.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson and former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski both lent their backing to Bokova earlier this month at a UNESCO event in Sofia.
But last week, the German daily Die Welt reported Bokova had said in her official biography that she was the Bulgarian foreign minister in the late-1990s, when in fact she was the acting foreign minister for only a few months. She told the paper this was a mistake and corrected her website after the publication’s reporter first inquired about the subject.
The United Nations effectively fired the starting gun on the race two weeks ago, sending out a letter to all national governments that calls for them to nominate candidates. Plenty of non-Bulgarian candidates — including names like former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clarke and Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić — are expected to make strong runs for the top U.N. slot, which comes open January 1, 2017, when Ban Ki-moon ends his decade-long tenure.
But the Security Council will ultimately offer up just one name for the 193-member General Assembly to either approve or deny, meaning veto-holding members — and the United States and Russia in particular — hold an outsized amount of power over the choice. “The big question is where Moscow and Washington stand on the two candidates,” said Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
And due to growing demands for a woman UN secretary-general — and a Russian push to put an Eastern European in the top slot — a country with just 7 million people and the lowest per-capita GDP in the European Union seems unusually well-positioned. “The very fact that we are seriously considering a Bulgarian is creating a certain level of hype,” said one Bulgarian supporter of Georgieva. “Both of them are very able people.”
The Russia question
Moscow has been the driving force behind the push for an East European secretary-general; having someone from the region who understands the Russian viewpoint, the thinking goes, would allow the country to flex its muscles at a venue often dominated by Western voices and points of view.
Russia pushed for the recent nomination process letter to include language calling for “geographic rotation” — which amounts to code, U.N. watchers tell POLITICO, for Eastern Europe. Other members of the Security Council objected but agreed to the compromise phrase of regional diversity, according to a source in a U.N. Security Council delegation.
|UNESCO Chief Irina Bokova.|
“A lot of people rather nastily imply that because Bokova comes from a well-known communist family, she must be Moscow’s candidate. I think that this is rather cheap tittle-tattle, but Bokova will face more questions about the family issue,” says Gowan, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
By contrast, “nobody is quite sure whether Georgieva’s history with Russia … works for or against her.” One Bulgarian source said that Georgieva’s reputation as a non-ideological technocrat has made her amenable to the Russians, who have signaled that they would not veto her.
Followers of the race say it’s hard to gauge how strongly the Russians support Bokova, but that her connections to the country make her their preferred candidate. Bokova and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in St. Petersburg in early-December and had kind words for each other. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy at the United Nations declined to comment, and the only official word is the country wants an Eastern European.
In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said that the “time has come that a woman from Eastern Europe be entrusted with the highest position in the U.N. Secretariat.” But faced with two prominent choices who check those boxes, the government has been cagey about whom it would nominate.
Bokova has been mentioned for several years as a potential candidate. Seen as deeply partisan in Sofia, the 63-year-old former acting minister of foreign affairs in 2013 pushed the then-Socialist government to nominate her as the country’s candidate, and sources say that the government effectively backed her in the days before it was toppled following massive public protests.
The staid traditions of the United Nations dictate that no one be seen as thirsting for the post. But the government never submitted a formal letter to the United Nations General Assembly endorsing her. Even though Georgieva, 62, has never actually held a position in Bulgarian government, she is from the same GERB political party as Borrisov and many observers feel that she has the inside track.
The matchup is drawing enough interest domestically that a Bulgarian market strategy firm, Alpha Research, conducted a poll in mid-November about the two women. Georgieva was seen as the more competent of the two, with a 62 percent approval rating among respondents as opposed to just 44 percent for Bokova. The results also showed that 25 percent of the participants approved of either candidate, “because of the prestige the position would extend to Bulgaria.”
A wide-open race
Jean Krasno, a U.N. historian who also leads a group called WomanSG, which has been vocally advocating for a woman to lead the United Nations, says that both Bokova and Georgieva are both on her group’s list of “extraordinary women.”
Bokova didn’t respond to POLITICO’s request for comment; her office cited a busy schedule. Georgieva told POLITICO in November: “I’m very honored for my name to be mentioned but I have a job that takes my full attention and I’m doing it. My philosophy in life has always been to do the job I have.”
But in the last month, both Bulgarians have been in New York and Washington for meetings with high ranking U.N. officials, ambassadors and U.S. officials. In recent weeks, Georgieva has met with the Chinese, British and French ambassadors to the United Nations, according to another source inside a United Nations delegation. Similarly, Bokova met with the French ambassador and the United Kingdom’s deputy ambassador. To be sure, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about either woman meeting with high-level officials, given their current job portfolios. But the chatter level about both is high.
|EU Vice President Kristalina Georgieva.|
Still, a conference hosted by Bokova this month in Sofia on countering violent extremism, which was organized by UNESCO and the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, turned into a love-fest for her candidacy. Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and Kwaśniewski, a longtime Bokova ally, both addressed the forum and voiced their support for her.
While noting that he does not speak with the U.S. administration, Richardson – unprompted — mentioned Bokova’s potential as a possible secretary-general in an on-air chat. “Now this is my individual view, and I’m not speaking for the U.S. government, but [Bokova] has a lot of support,” Richardson said.