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Clark’s star fading as another Bulgarian woman emerges as UN Sec-Gen contender

01/01/2016

Former long-serving New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark has seen her star fade somewhat as contender for the ultimate role in world government – Secretary-General of the United Nations. Not that she has been doing anything wrong, rather that she is increasingly from the wrong neck of the woods – and insufficiently polyglottic to boot.

In my previous commentary (see here), I noted that Clark – who continues to head the United Nations Development Programme – was probably a front-runner along with the Bulgarian Irina Bokova, who heads UNESCO, the UN’s sprawling education, science and culture apparatus. Their leading status as candidates to replace the incumbent Ban Ki-Moon is down, first and foremost, to the fact that they are well-qualified women. But I put Bokova ahead, for two crucial additional reasons – she is from ‘Eastern’ Europe and she speaks fluent French. The former factor is what the Russians demand and the latter is one that France will almost certainly insist on – and both countries have a veto when it comes to the Security Council making its choice – in the first half of 2016 – of candidate to put to the General Assembly for approval.

EU international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response commissioner Kristalina Georgieva (R) and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova give a press conference after a working session on Febuary 17, 2010 at EU headquarters in Brussels. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

Irina Bokova (L) and Kristalina Georgieva

But now there is another hat in that particular ring and, somewhat bizarrely given the country’s minuscule international standing, Kristalina Georgieva – currently a European Union minister – is also Bulgarian. Both she and Bokova – and Helen Clark for that matter – were born in the early Cold War era but unlike Bokova, Georgieva has no particular ties to the former Soviet Union and her lengthy stint in the World Bank has seemingly endeared her to another major decision-making country, the United States. Her fluency in the Russian language, doubtless first acquired as a dutiful student in communist-run Bulgaria, will not harm her chances either.

But what of French? In an interesting insight into Georgieva’s ambition, her CV on a European Union website (see here) states that in addition to having fluency in English and Russian, she is a ‘beginner’ in French. That CV looks a little dated, since it doesn’t mention her move from the World Bank to the European Commission in 2010. A more recent bio – it’s here – asserts that Georgieva is ‘constantly improving her French’.

Assuming all things being equal as regards perceived competency to do the Sec-Gen job, is it possible that Georgieva is now the front-runner vis a vis Bokova? From a ‘western’ perspective, the latter’s problem is her very strong links with communism, both in her native Bulgaria and in the former USSR. Her father was a senior member of the Bulgarian party structure and Bokova was educated in Moscow.

Of course, like so many other ambitious people from those times, she has long since shed any formal ties to the ideology. But up against Kristalina Georgieva, another ‘East European’, French (and Russian)-speaking woman, who perhaps crucially pursued a politically untroublesome academic career – she taught university-level economics – in the communist times, Bokova is likely to be bypassed. If Georgieva really does speak French passably, it will be probably be enough for the French vote. And Russia will probably settle for either woman, given that its geographic stipulation will be satisfied either way.

And either way, New Zealand’s Helen Clark is by now almost certainly an also-ran, along with all the male contenders. In particular, it seems unlikely that New Zealand – now half-way through its two-year stint on the Security Council – will seek to go against Russian insistence on a first ever Secretary-General from the former European communist bloc. The feeling in Wellington is likely to be that Helen Clark has had her day in the sun.

It is rather Bulgaria’s government which has a dilemma. Faced with an embarrassment of riches, which of its two contenders to back? In geopolitical terms, Georgieva is less problematic and if the word from Moscow in Sofia’s ear is that she will be acceptable, that will probably be enough.

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