Will Eastern Europe lose race to lead UN?

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Eastern Europe is due to supply the candidate to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary general - but might the region play its cards wrong?

Will Eastern Europe squander its historic opportunity to provide the next United Nations secretary-general, when Ban Ki-Moon's tenure expires at the end of this year?

Under an informal rotating principle, the ninth secretary general should be an Eastern European. But the region risks losing that chance because of lukewarm backing for national candidates at home, and a regional failure to pull together to back one individual.

An informal selection procedure, made more transparent this year by open hearings, has produced 11 candidates so far, eight of them from Eastern Europe.

The former or current foreign ministers of Moldova, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia, plus the former president of Slovenia are all in the race.

Bulgaria has proposed Irina Bokova, current head of Unesco, the cultural and educational wing of the UN.

Close observers at the UN say the candidates risk crowding each other out - leaving the way open for other strong candidates including Susana Malcorra of Argentina, Helen Clark from New Zealand, or the tough-talking former UNHCR head, Antonio Guterres from Portugal.

Image source, AP/EPA
Image caption,
Bulgarian candidate Irina Bokova, left, could end up competing against fellow Bulgarian Kristalena Georgieva for the coveted role

In July, a straw poll among the 15 members of the Security Council should give a clearer idea of the backing, or lack of support, for each.

Even more candidates could also step forward in the coming weeks. Another Bulgarian stateswoman, Kristalena Georgieva, is widely rumoured to be on the brink of announcing her candidacy.

"I am obviously watching the race closely. A lot of people are urging me to enter. Let's see what happens," she told the BBC. Behind the scenes, several countries are said to be considering nominating her.

Ms Bokova was an early frontrunner, and enjoyed crucial Russian backing. But her chances have been harmed by a damning investigation of the inner workings of Unesco in recent months, and by her support for Palestinian statehood - frowned on by the US government.

Nearly half of Unesco's budget currently goes on staff salaries.

'Kick up the backside'

By way of contrast, Ms Georgieva has a strong record as an administrator at the World Bank, and as a former EU commissioner for humanitarian affairs and current commissioner for budgetary affairs.

In recent months, she led the team overseeing a new blueprint for UN humanitarian interventions which concluded that $1bn (£710m) a year could be saved by directing funds directly to those in need.

Candidates for UN secretary-general

  • Irina Bokova, 63 - Bulgarian politician and director general of Unesco
  • Helen Clark, 66 - former prime minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) and current head of the UN development programme
  • Natalia Gherman, 47 - Moldovan politician who was deputy prime minister and minister of European integration from 2013-2016
  • Vesna Pusic, 62 - Leader of the liberal Croatian People's Party. Served as a first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign and European affairs until January this year
  • Antonio Guterres, 66 - Former prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015)
  • Srgjan Kerim, 67 - Macedonian economist and diplomat. Served as Macedonia's foreign minister from 2000-2001 and was president of the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly from 2007-2008
  • Danilo Turk, 64 - Former president of Slovenia (2007-2012). Served as an ambassador to the UN from 1992-2000 and as the UN assistant secretary general for political affairs from 2000-2005
  • Igor Luksic, 39 - Former prime minister of Montenegro (2010-2012) and current minister of foreign affairs
  • Vuk Jeremic,40 - Former foreign minister of Serbia (2007-2012), president of UN General Assembly between Sept 2012-Sept 2013
  • Susana Malcorra, 61 - former Chef de Cabinet to the Executive Office at the UN, current foreign minister of Argentina
  • Miroslav Lajcak, 53 - Foreign minister of Slovakia and deputy PM

More information on the candidates and the selection procedure is available on the UN's website

"Insiders say that either Kristalena Georgieva or Antonio Guterres could give the UN the kind of kick up the backside it needs," said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

There is a consensus that the next leader of the UN should be a good manager with experience of running international organisations. Wide international backing for the idea that the next UN secretary-general should be a woman, plus Russian insistence that she or he speak Russian, could tilt the race into a battle between the two Bulgarians.

"This is such a loose process, that if it became clear that Ms Georgieva had the support of the five permanent members, there is a way to get her back into the running," said Richard Gowan.

A final decision on the next secretary-general is expected in October, when Russia presides over the Security Council.