Why Bokova's Nomination as Bulgarian UN Top Job Candidate Makes Sense
Bulgaria officially endorsed Irina Bokova as “its” candidate to take over as UN Secretary General from Ban Ki-moon from January 01, 2017.
Just a year ago, her nomination would have looked like the most natural step to take. As of today, however, it is just the coda of a “mini propaganda war” between two lobbies. Over the course of a few months, in the run-up to and weeks into the "nominations" period, Bulgaria produced some peculiar media fuss on the issue, with international media outlets noting the presence of two possible contenders - Bokova herself and Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commission's Vice President for Budget and Human Resources.
Widespread comments that a country like Bulgaria could offer two strong UNSG candidates dwarfed the fact that, just months earlier, in end-January of last year, Borisov had softened his tone on Bokova pledging support for her nomination as UN Secretary General during a Sofia visit.
What he demonstrated back then was continuity with the government of Plamen Oresharski which decided to endorse her with a cabinet resolution a month before stepping down in the summer of 2014. And yet, with the first reports of Georgieva's supposed UN ambitions in the autumn, the prospects of nominating her started to look somewhat dimmer. Despite Georgieva consistently refusing to confirm she was seeking a nomination, she was systematically portrayed as a candidate, with a number of media outlets here in Bulgaria underlining she was a more suitable candidate given Bokova's own “Communist” family history. On the other hand, Bokova's supporters often pointed to her work at UNESCO, which enjoys international appraisal, and recalled she stands a bigger chance to be approved by Russia, with a Moscow paper even submitting what beneath the surface looks like a “Kremlin warning” to Sofia that Georgieva would never be accepted (UNSG candidates need the approval of all five permanent UN Security Council members to be elected).
Government hesitation to endorse a candidate did not help dispel the confusion: will Georgieva be the nominee after all?
Novinite never “took a side” in a dispute which looked like a domestic debate internationalized and transposed in a host of prominent magazines and newspapers. Evidently, it was not up to journalists, but up to the government to adopt a formal decision. Hypothetically, of course, media outlets could apply pressure on the government to nominate the “right” ("more qualified"?) person. Who is the right person, though? Some chose to expose “dark” moments of the biographies of either candidate – Bokova, of course, looks much more vulnerable in this sense. But in fact everyone who has a prominent role in Bulgaria's public life (or in the international public space) may turn out to have dark chapters within their CV, even though it may take time to disclose the truth some have managed to hide as deep as they could.
Still, it is worth noting why the decision to endorse Bokova makes more sense than it may look to her opponents.
First of all, this odd example of continuity, in a political environment that is seldom supportive of coherence and consistency in decision-making, where every government rejects policies of predecessors to make own political gains, should be respected. Bokova was first nominated in mid-2014, at a time when the word was already out that she would aspire to the UN top job role – at that time when her name appeared, it was one of the very few described as the name of a “frontrunner,” and months later the same trend could be observed. And in the bulk of international media outlets, it still is. Why not have a Bulgarian Secretary General, and why not nominate somebody if they are said to stand a chance?
Secondly, opting for Russia's preferred candidate is the wiser choice in years when Sofia-Moscow relations are strained because of the international developments and Bulgaria's pro-Western affiliation. Support for Bokova coming from pro-Russian circles outside Bulgaria has been so evident over the past months that one is inclined to think winning the sympathy of Kremlin, the staunchest proponent of the mantra of “geographic rotation” and “Eastern Europe's turn” at the helm of the UN, is pivotal under the present circumstances.
Several international media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, have indeed described Georgieva as the better candidate. What was eerie about her supposed UN struggle, however, is that she had never declared it, and has repeatedly emphasized her commitment to carrying out her EU Commission duties. The logical question for Bulgaria: if she is as good at her job as a number of diplomats have pointed out, why not keep her at the helm of the EU's financial management, where she works for Bulgaria's terrible image abroad and where she (yes, nobody speaks for this officially, but all member states think this way) in practice has some leverage on the allocation of EU funding to member states?
The third problem stems from the accusations of Bokova's past, which constitute
a misunderstanding of Bulgaria's political history
– for the reason already mentioned above. Many people who received educational or career opportunities abroad in the years before democracy came were somewhat linked to the political establishment of the time – either through personal or family activities favouring the powers-that-be.
Short of agreeing with unproven accusations, often hurled at Georgieva by some politicians and media outlets (which suggest she was affiliated to the Communist-era security service DS but her her files are being concealed by the National Intelligence Service (NRS) of Bulgaria), one should never forget her life under Communism was hardly that of the average "victim" to the system. After graduating from the University of National and World Economy in Sofia, Bulgaria, she was able do post-graduate research and studies at the London School of Economics, paving her way into the World Bank where she began working in 1993. Her qualities should never be denied; but it should be noted many skilled and talented people who wanted to pursue a career in the years before democracy never got that privilege.
One should not forget that one of the most "staunchly anti-communist" Prime Ministers, Ivan Kostov, was a university lecturer back in the 1980s who, seeking to advance further in his career, only failed to become Associate Professor at the time because his membership application to the Bulgarian Communist Party was rejected. President Rosen Plevneliev, for his part, has parents of socialist background and was an activist with the communist youth movement. Does this mean he, who also enjoys good reputation abroad, should be disrespected or maybe impeached for that? Leaving aside some of his statements which have indeed sparked controversy in society, his birthdate is not something he can be condemned for because he did not choose which age to live in.
If one is to judge Bulgarian politicians according to their "Communist" record, most of them should be immediately dismissed. Sounds good for a revolution, but the picture of a government ditching a candidate that stands chance to win a key international office, to put forward another candidacy with question marks around their name doesn't look revolutionary at all. It is strange to see how nowadays, when Bulgaria purports to be a democracy, critics who portray themselves as “democrats” and “victims to Communism” for being “born to anti-Communist parents” slam Bokova for the same reasons, just removing the “anti”. You can't thoroughly remove the “anti” in Bulgaria, because “if you pay everyone what they deserve, would anyone ever escape a whipping?" Shakespeare would certainly dislike to see his name mentioned in the Bulgarian context; but the quote from his Hamlet certainly illustrates the fact that we cannot hide several generations from the world's eyes just because they were born in the wrong time. And even if we could - even if it were the right thing to do - the time would not be 2016, but 1989.
This text was edited to remove a section reading that Georgieva had a stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before 1989; that actually happened in 1991.
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