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A Woman for the next UN Secretary-General?

unVenetia van Kuffeler highlights the key female candidates in the race

While many are watching what appears to be Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House, a more far-reaching and politically intriguing campaign is taking place. A global election next year could see another woman break one of the highest glass ceilings in politics. The next UN Secretary-General (UNSG) will take over from Ban Ki-moon at the end of 2016, and for the first time in 70 years female candidates are being mentioned among the likely successors.

While Western Europe has supplied four secretaries-general, candidates from Eastern Europe have never held the position. Next year is likely to be the first serious opportunity since 1945 for the region to establish itself on the highest diplomatic stage.

Campaigning is well underway. Here are profiles of the three leading female Eastern European candidates and their main supporters.

The Front Runner: Irina Bokova

Former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Irina Bokovo was twice elected Director-General of UNESCO. Her candidacy for the UNSG was endorsed by the previous government of Bulgaria and by the current Prime Minister this summer.

Bokova seems to enjoy support among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Based in Paris, she is said to have the direct backing of the Quai d’Orsay and of French President François Hollande, who presented her with the Légion d’Honneur this summer. On a recent visit to Beijing, she was personally welcomed by the Chinese President, whose wife is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Following this visit, the Vice-Minister of Education and President of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO publicly supported Bokova’s candidacy for UN Secretary-General, calling her a “strong candidate” and “an extraordinary leader.”

Washington, which cut UNESCO’s funding following Palestine joining the organisation in 2011, also now seems amenable to Bokova. During a recent visit to UNESCO in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry warmly praised her leadership, and she was the only UN representative invited by President Barack Obama to speak at the summit he convened on combatting violent extremism in September in New York. Close to Laura Bush, Bokova was publicly endorsed by Marjorie Margolies, the well-known leader in the US women’s empowerment movement and Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. Another Democratic Party leader supporting her candidacy is Governor Bill Richardson, a former US Ambassador to the UN and one of the first influential Democrats to throw his support behind Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Last month, the President of the World Jewish Congress Ron Lauder along with the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Yuli Edelstein publicly praised her stand against the attempt to reclassify the Western Wall by the Executive Board of UNESCO.

Bokova seems to be acceptable to Russia as well. A classmate of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, she was the only official invited to accompany UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to meet with President Putin earlier this year.

The major threat to Bokova’s candidacy could actually come from her home constituency in Sofia, where the government’s support seems not to be fully secured.

The Challenger: Vesna Pusić

Vesna Pusić has been Croatia’s Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister since 2011. A former academic, she entered  politics in 2000 when she was elected as a Member of Parliament. She is the only Eastern European woman whose nomination has been formally notified to the UN by her government.

As a founder of the liberal Croatian People’s Party, and as a staunch European integrationist, she can count on the strong support of the liberal group in Brussels and in wider Europe. Another key international supporter is the globe-trotting former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt who, while also maintaining strong interest and connections in the Balkans, is strongly encouraging and supporting Pusić in her UN ambitions. Bildt’s ability to open doors for Pusić could be pivotal.

She will also need to tap into her regional network of support to overcome the problems she will face from neighbouring states while Croatia’s handling of the migration crisis has not won the country friends internationally. Her domestic situation has weakened somewhat with recent parliamentary elections resulting in her government losing its parliamentary majority.

The Outrider: Kristalina Georgieva

Kristalina Georgieva is European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources. A former economist and career technocrat with expertise gained from a lengthy spell in The World Bank in both Moscow and DC, she joined the European Commission in 2009 as Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. Although the Bulgarian government has already endorsed Irina Bokova as its candidate for UNSG, recent articles from Brussels confirm the open secret that Kristalina Georgieva is actively campaigning in Sofia and internationally for the position.

Coming from the centre-right European People’s Party, Georgieva is believed to enjoy the backing of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, although he has been reluctant to be publicly involved.

In the US, Georgieva’s main supporter appears to be the billionaire George Soros and his Open Society network. Georgieva personally received an award from Soros in October 2014, with Soros visiting Brussels once again to meet her privately in June 2015. The former head of Soros’ Foundation in Sofia, Ambassador Stefan Tafrov, who is currently serving as the Bulgarian Permanent Representative to the UN, is known in diplomatic circles as actively campaigning for her in the US.

Georgieva will have to gather support beyond the Brussels bubble and the Soros community, neither of which has much influence on the decisions of the P5. The fact that she does not speak French despite five years in Belgium does not sit well with Paris. Unless there is a substantial reset of the relationship between the EU and the Russian Federation, it is doubtful the Kremlin would agree on an official EU Commissioner being elected as UN Secretary-General at a time when reciprocal and damaging sanctions are in place. With the P5 seeking a seasoned diplomat to succeed Ban Ki-moon, Georgieva’s lack of UN and diplomatic experience could be a major stumbling block for her candidacy.


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