The global community once again is searching for the best candidate for the post of UN Secretary General to replace the current head of the UN Ban Ki-Moon. At the end of 2016 the five permanent members of the UN Security Council will pick a candidacy that is most acceptable to all the countries, who are the decision makers in this process—China, France, Russian, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Since no Secretary-General has ever come from Eastern Europe, many speculate this would be the region where the next candidate will come from. In addition, the United States insist that the person who will lead the UN for the next term must be a woman. However, the East European region and its historical complexities may create additional tensions between the East and the West, when choosing a candidate for the highest UN post. One of the women considered for this position is the current head of Unesco – Irina Bokova, 63, a Bulgarian. She also happens to be the favorite candidate of Russia. According to many analysts, this might be the main problem with her candidacy along with her communist background. Although she was officially nominated for this post by the Bulgarian government, her candidacy remains very controversial in her own country and abroad. What makes Bokova vulnerable is her being a former member of top communist nomenclature in Bulgaria during the Cold War. Therefore, her candidacy is quite unacceptable to many people. Her background is traced back to the most oppressive circles of the former communist regime in her country. Bokova is the daughter for Georgi Bokov, a prominent communist-era politician and the chief propagandist of the regime. For years, he worked as the Editor-in-Chief of the paper Rabotnichesko Delo (the Bulgarian equivalent of the Russian paper Pravda). Her father has been implicated in brutal repressions of dissidents in Bulgaria. Although he died before the fall of communism, his dark legacy is still very present in this nation’s psyche, where he is perceived as the Bulgarian Goebbels.
Like every child coming from the highest strata of communist aristocracy, Irina Bokova received a top education in Bulgaria. Most children of the communist elite were prepared to serve as diplomats. They were sent to study to the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, an exclusive institution dedicated to creating the top diplomatic brass of the Eastern Bloc and other Soviet Union satellites. After graduating in 1977, Bokova started her career at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. In 1982, she was sent to work at the Permanent Bulgarian mission at the UN. Between 1984 and 1990, she worked at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry in Sofia, where she witnessed the fall of communism. The new times became a blessing for many of the former communist elite because they’d had a head start and unsurpassed leverage to enter the new political arena during the difficult transition period. Bokova entered politics, serving as a Member of Parliament, a deputy-foreign Minister in 1995 and later an acting foreign minister in the socialist government of Zhan Videnov—a period considered to be the most disastrous in recent Bulgarian history. Later, she continued to be a MP for the Socialist party—that is the former communist party with a new name. Between the years 2005-2009 she served as the Bulgarian Ambassador to France and Monaco and, at the same time, was given the post of the Ambassador of Bulgaria to UNESCO. In 2009, she was appointed to the vacated post of the Director-General of UNESCO.
Bokova turned out to be a polished bureaucrat, politician and diplomat. However, she owed her career entirely to her strong communist party connections before and after the fall of communism. “Even the remote probability for Irina Bokova becoming the head of the United Nations is disturbing,” says Dr. Lubomir Kanov, Board Certified Psychiatrist, who was a former political prisoner in Bulgaria and a political refugee, currently living in Long Island, NY. “Bokova’s nomination will show the amorality and the uselessness of the United Nations, if the organization even considers such candidacy,” contends Dr. Kanov. His opinion is shared by many and it poses the question of whether the burden of historic events and general perception of “morality” should be taken into account when choosing a candidate for such an important international post.
This issue is being addressed with an increased intensity by the international media as well. According to the Spanish source Infobae, the only criterion that matches Bokova’s candidacy is that she is a female. (opinion.infobae.com/julian-schvindlerman/2016/02/18/irina-bokova-es-la-persona-adecuada-para-dirigir-la-onu) The article claims that Bokova’s “red” candidacy is unacceptable because of her close ties to Putin and goes on to mention the controversial decisions at Unesco that happened during her tenure— some of which include the acceptance of Palestine as full member state of the organization, which caused a temporal withdrawal of the US funding. The article also mentions questionable hiring practices such as recruiting a person associated with the Sudanese genocide to a position of a humanitarian expert.
Recent reports from the Bulgarian investigative journalism site Bivol implicate Bokova in several incidents of corruption and other scandals. Bivol, published a report about properties she had acquired in New York City for which she paid $2.4 million in cash with no confirmed ways of income. The report says that after examining her official income documents and other property transactions in Bulgaria, it is impossible to understand where this amount of family wealth comes from. Declarations of conflict of interest and income by UN personnel are not public record and the site Bivol claims that the body failed to respond to a request for information on Bokova’s declarations. The site also states and provides evidence that Bokova tried to cover up a confidential audit report by the Internal Oversight Service Audit & Investigation Sections, describing her role in the hiring of a key Deputy Financial Director at Unesco – the Brazilian, Anita Thompson-Flores. The report says that her appointment was in gross violation of the hiring procedures at the organization. Bokova is being blamed for manipulating the process, conflict of interests, and acceptance of a false diploma. The employee, who is considered to be a friend of Bokova, was removed eventually from this post, but was never fired. Instead, she had been reassigned to an UN office in Venice, Italy.
One of the biggest critics of Bokova is Great Britain. Sources from Bivol claim that in March the UK will release a very critical report of the government, assessing the UNESCO performance as “poor value for money for UK aid”. The Multilateral Aid Review has had previous negative evaluations of Unesco’s performance under Bokova’s watch and had branded her in 2011 as one of the worst managers in the entire UN system. (https://bivol.bg/bokova-impeachment-unesco.html) “Bokova, the first ever female in the role, has unfortunately completely failed to rise to the hopes placed upon her. Instead, her term in office has been a woeful mix of amorality and amateurism, which has led the worthy organization to the brink of disrepair and disrepute,” wrote the U.K. journalist Patrick Dawson in 2013 in a report published on politics.co.uk. A few days ago, the British paper—The Sunday Times—went on quoting a top diplomat from the Western Security Council saying that “If the Bulgarian Prime Minister wants a Bulgarian woman to be the next UN Secretary-General, then he’s picked the wrong one.” (www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Europe/article1667986.ece)
Daniel Kadik, the Director of the Southeastern European Project (a German non-profit foundation) said recently on Deutsche Welle that the nomination of Bokova is a mistake. “For me this choice sends the wrong signals not only to Bulgarians but also to international observers. Officially Sofia stood by a pro-Russian candidacy.” He contends that Bulgaria failed to present a widely acceptable candidate to the international community.
Russia, on the other hand, has been pushing hard for Bokova. For months it was putting a huge pressure on the Bulgarian government – mainly through Moscow’s political proxies from the left– to approve the nomination. One of the pro-Russian fractions in the parliament –the party ABV– went as far as threatening to leave the fragile coalition, should her candidacy not be supported. The multiple Russian-sponsored media outlets in the country have been pounding for months on the issue of Bokova’s candidacy as the only inevitable choice for Bulgaria. The hysteria reached even the main stream media, where she was portrayed as the only “patriotic choice.”
The Russian representative at the UN—Vitaly Churkin, said that it is mandatory for the new Secretary General to be from Eastern Europe. According to him, among the many good candidacies from that region one woman really strands out and that is Bokova. Russian media, llike Gazeta.ru and Nezavisimaya Gazeta have also reported that sources from Kremlin unanimously stand by this choice.
However, many Bulgarian and international observers consider Bokova to be a huge PR disaster for the country and for the UN. Many petitions have been initiated against her nomination in Bulgaria and it has been reported that another Bulgarian woman—Kristalina Georgieva, who is a current European Commission Vice President, would have been more acceptable choice to the international community. Among other short-listed nominees for the post are Croatia’s Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, also a woman. Men vying for the job include Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister, Danilo Turk, a former Slovenian president, and Srgjan Kerim, a former Macedonian foreign minister. There are also speculations that Angela Merkel will not be pursuing a next term in office and that her candidacy might also be on the table—as a person who comes from former East Germany.
As far as the United States—the race for the UN might become a part of Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Bokova is a close associate of Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law—Marjorie Margolies, a former Democratic Member of Congress. (www.wsj.com/articles/clintons-u-n-candidate-1454977210) However, it is unlikely that Bokova will receive a widespread support in the US, especially from the Republicans. Having the history of the US-UN relations in mind, including that with Unesco, it would be unwise to think that Hilary Clinton will endorse Bokova’s nomination as it might severely hurt her presidential race.
Regardless of the many ambiguities in the upcoming political chess game surrounding the election of the next UN Secretary-General, there has been growing criticism of the opacity of the selection process, with calls for a more formal selection in which candidates engage in more public discussions and debates over their views and platforms. Simon Chesterman, of the Singapore’s Straits Times has argued that for an organization as important as the UN “having its leader chosen by the lowest common denominator of what the P5 finds acceptable is not good enough.” And bottom line is whether the UN can allow itself to be really omnivorous when it comes to its biggest posts? Should the candidates’ past and political inclinations matter and should they be a factor in the selection process? The people, whom the UN is supposed to serve, will surely say “yes.”