'Irina or Kristalina?' A UN Rivalry Fuelled by an Indecisive Bulgarian Government

Novinite Insider » OPINIONS | Author: Angel Petrov |September 29, 2016, Thursday // 17:41
Bulgaria: 'Irina or Kristalina?' A UN Rivalry Fuelled by an Indecisive Bulgarian Government File photo, EPA/BGNES

"I don't remember either the Bulgarian Socialist Party or Parvanov - or Oresharski - coming and asking the biggest party when they were to submit a candidacy. Did anyone come and ask me, ask for my opinion or for that of GERB? No."

That was what Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told reporters when asked about a no-confidence motion being prepared by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Plamen Oresharski and Georgi Parvanov were a former Prime Minister and a former President, respectively. 

The socialist opposition wants to submit the motion in “retaliation” to Borisov's decision to replace the candidacy of Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, for the office of UN Secretary General. Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commission Vice President, was tipped as a possible “late entry” for months, since Bokova became the official candidacy in February. Russian officials even argued that in March she approached them to study whether they would back her as a Bulgarian if she ran.

A replacement of Bokova was under discussion over the past weeks, following an “ultimatum” by Borisov who warned he would take the step unless the UNESCO chief ranked among the two contenders with the best results. Given international factors (reports of Eastern European countries planning to nominate Georgieva, and an apparent strong support from Germany), the “transfer of support” was not unexpected at all.

It nevertheless opened the floodgates of a political scandal in Bulgaria – and did so for the wrong reasons.

A heated exchange of rhetoric can be seen and heard throughout Bulgaria's public space. “Irina or Kristalina?” a number of journalists have joked, as if it were all about a man choosing a woman, in a reference to Bokova or Georgieva. Observers tempted to talk about Bulgaria's “dychotomy” and “polarization” would probably be inclined to paraphrase the question: “left or right?” “Communist or democratic?” “With or without Russia?” Bokova is the daughter of a communist editor-in-chief, cherished by Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Georgieva is a right-leaning, pro-western, EU Commission official backed by Germany.

To their regret, this has little to do with the race itself. First of all, because “communist ancestry” and “party affiliation” are criteria with no direct correlation whatsoever to the final results of the vote at the United Nations Security Council. Picking a UN chief is not about ideology, but rather about political games, bargaining, lobbying and, not least, tactics. Secondly, because if someone is to blame for Bokova's current performance (if we accept at all it was an indicator for the last UN vote, which it is not, given expected vetoes on many candidates), it is the Bulgarian government – for being a bit too hesitant. 

The so-called discussion “Irina or Kristalina?” began late last year. At the time, for around a year, Bokova had been among the names most frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Ban Ki-moon, the incumbent UN chief. She had been endorsed by the government of Plamen Oresharski (mentioned by Borisov), and had gained respect from a number of diplomats who directly talked about her as a frontrunner. Since the formal UN race had not begun yet, however, the cabinet could not submit the nomination before stepping down.

When Borisov swept to power again, in November 2014 (the candidacy of Bokova was approved a few months earlier), he could have easily dismissed the name, especially considering how little it was connected to the ranks of its own party (GERB, the conservative political organization headed by him, has often taken pride in what it sees as rich human resources, capable of producing candidates for any office). Using the factor of “Oresharski and Parvanov” (the latter, as President between 2002 and 2012, is seen as crucial on Bokova's way to UNESCO) and their “legacy” as an excuse explaining his endorsement for Bokova does not stand to reason, especially after Borisov himself turned down an existing agreement with Westinghouse on the construction of a nuclear unit that, in economic terms, could have meant to Bulgaria much more than a “home-made” Secretary General. Westinghouse was, by the way, precisely Oresharski's legacy.

Fast forward to February 2016, the time of the nomination, Bulgaria had lost months hesitating and not submitting a formal candidate, as it could have been done in December. The word had already gone around about Georgieva and her ambition to run for the UN's top office, accompanied by a story that indicated Ban Ki-moon's own preference for having her at the top. It nominated Bokova instead, with both Borisov and President Plevneliev giving indications they would do otherwise if given the possibility. Right-leaning politicians and media even speculated Bokova had been nominated under pressure from Parvanov, whose ABV party at that time had threatened to quit the governing coalition if the UNESCO head was not proposed for the post (ABV, in the end, withdrew from the cabinet just a few months later).

Borisov then announced the state would resolutely back Bokova's candidacy and campaign intensely in her favour among UN diplomats. Instead, reports emerged of UN officials (including the ex permanent envoy to the United Nations, Stefan Tafrov) openly lobbying against Bokova. International media ran stories of Georgieva still planning to enter the race. By the time, President Plevneliev, whose political affiliation and ideas have little to do with Bokova, had only shown lukewarm support for the official candidate. It was only at the UN General Debate in New York – last week – that Plevneliev afforded to make a positive remark about Bokova.

But her candidacy might have been in jeopardy at the time – both because of the “ultimatum” by Borisov and because of the invisible campaign pursued by Georgieva simultaneously with that of Bokova. In fact, the ultimatum may have paved the way for pushing Bokova down the last straw poll results – the only thing her opponents needed was to talk indifferent voters at the UNSC into discouraging her once to get her removed from the race, at least in theory.

Government support turned out to be Bokova's soft spot. If a candidate's own country sends controversial signals and partly discredits her or him either through its actions or lack of action, this may not affect the contender's result but, whatever happens, the government has no right to expect it will be treated seriously when putting forward any proposals.

While some could have easily dismissed the remark of an official of Parvanov's party that no-one will ever pay attention to a Bulgarian candidate nominated to run a greengrocery, the same cannot be said about a comment from Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Bulgaria's last King and former Prime Minister. “From my talks with foreign diplomats, my understanding is that many would think: If the Bulgarians cannot agree on having a single candidate, how do you expect of us to help you?" he said after the news was spread.

A UN Secretary General also helps the country of origin boost its geopolitical prominence a little -  if there were no national interest in nominating a Secretary General, why this fierce lobbying battle among rivalling diplomacies? A government swaying its decisions all the time and unable to stand up for a position once it has been adopted, instead of emanating confusing messages that make counterpats wonder:  "What is it that they want?"

FT (like others) suggests Sofia changed its mind partly at the behest of Germany. The problem is not that - small countries often bend themselves when pressed by heavyweights - but the fact it was never single-minded in the first place.

Those really interested in seeing a Bulgarian candidacy should now only hope the government will make no mistake that will prevent either of the two wonderful candidacies from getting the tob job. Whatever has been said about (but never against) Georgieva here, both she and Bokova might indeed be outstanding, for being able to campaign under the conditions of "state support" that does more than harm than good.  

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Tags: Irina Bokova, Kristalina Georgieva, UN Secretary General, Boyko Borisov, Georgi Parvanov

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