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New Zealand’s Clark and Bulgaria’s Bokova – Ladies In High Places


Question:  what do New Zealand and Bulgaria have in common?  Give up?  Answer:  the appointment of a senior female member of the public service to a high-level position in the United Nations.  Following Helen Clark’s appointment in April as head of the United Nations Development Programme, Bulgarian Irina Bokova – a former foreign minister and currently her country’s ambassador to France – has emerged the winner in a grueling campaign to find the new boss of UNESCO, the UN’s education, science and culture vulture.  Like Clark, Mrs Bokova – a mother of two – is the first woman appointed to the role.  And they are of similar vintage – at 57, Bokova is two years Clark’s junior.

Irina Bokova

Unlike Clark, whose anointment by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came following a secretive process where the identities of the candidates and even of the selection panel were concealed, Bokova had to participate in a very public campaign and selection process.  No less than nine candidates were voted on by the 58-member executive council of UNESCO.  Over four rounds of voting which started on 19 September, the contenders were whittled down to just two – Bokova and Farouk Hosni, for 22 years Egypt’s minister of culture.  Hosni was supported by Africa, the Middle East – minus Israel – and Islam and had been considered a shoe-in before the voting began.  But in the fifth and final round, Bokova received a four vote majority to secure the appointment.

Recriminations from the Hosni camp were immediate and predictable.  The man himself attributed his defeat to the “Zionist pressures” which had plagued his campaign.  And a leading Cairo daily called the vote further evidence of the “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam.

Bokova moved quickly to endeavour to defuse the tension, asserting that she would work at mending the divisions brought about by her election.  It wasn’t enough for Libya, with its government weighing in with the announcement that it would withdraw from UNESCO on account of Bokova’s appointment.  But Libya is a special case vis a vis Bulgaria, miffed as it is at the instant pardon given by the Bulgarian president in 2007 to the released Bulgarian medics detained in Libya for eight years on charges of infecting hundreds of children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV.

Bokova was also sensitive to criticism, at home and abroad, that she had been a high-ranking functionary during Bulgaria’s communist period.  As indeed was the case.  To wit, a Moscow-trained senior member of Bulgaria’s diplomatic community by the time the Bulgarian Communist Party imploded, with the party ousting its longtime leader Todor Zhivkov, the day following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.  And Bokova adroitly kept her wagon hitched to the “progressive” elements in the old clique – quickly reborn as the Bulgarian Socialist Party – through their periods of government in the 1990s, culminating in her appointment as Bulgaria’s ambassador in Paris.

Her reported stance on her communist background has been that she only did what was necessary to get on in a one-party state, the implication being that if there had been a choice she would have chosen not to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.  Perhaps, but in truth Bulgarians did not distinguish themselves during the Cold War in terms of resistance to communism – there was precious little public opposition and certainly nothing to emulate the uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and Poland.  On the contrary, Bulgaria presented as the most loyal of Soviet satellites, with Zhivkov on two occasions proposing that the country should become part of the USSR (proposals which were gently rebuffed by the Kremlin).

So the comparisons between Irina Bokova and Helen Clark can’t be taken too far.  The latter a hard-bitten politician of the left who defended her place in a democratically elected parliament over many years and who won no less than three terms as her country’s prime minister.  The former a privileged functionary in a totalitarian state who had the good fortune – and judgment – to avoid derailment in the so-called “transition” to democracy.

But both women have succeeded in penetrating the hitherto all-male upper echelons of the United Nations.  It will be interesting to follow their fortunes.


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