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Will the Next U.N. Secretary-General Be From Eastern Europe?

What will ultimately determine whether the next secretary-general is a woman, from Eastern Europe, or both, will be the backing of countries on the notoriously opaque U.N. Security Council.

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The race for the next United Nations Secretary-General is primed to make history — but exactly how isn’t entirely clear yet.  

For the first time in the international body’s existence, the nomination process is happening in the open and no longer selected behind closed doors. There is also a strong movement within the U.N. that the next Secretary General be a woman, and that the chosen candidate come from Eastern Europe — both of which would be a first for Turtle Bay.

But what will ultimately determine whether the next secretary-general is a woman, from Eastern Europe, or both, will be the backing of countries on the notoriously opaque U.N. Security Council.

There are few signs the so-called P-5 countries on the U.N. Security Council that hold veto power — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — are prepared to surrender any influence. There is no requirement for the council to pay attention to the nominees’ standing with the 193-country General Assembly. And if the U.N. does make history in the selection process, it will be because of behind-the-scenes horse trading, not popular mandate.

For Natalia Gherman, a candidate from the small former Soviet country of Moldova, navigating the interests of major powers is hardly new. A diplomat who has served as her country’s deputy prime minister, acting prime minister, and foreign minister — where she led negotiations with Brussels on a European Union association agreement — Gherman has a meaty resume, but lacks the extensive U.N. experience of her competitors. She is banking, in part, on the ongoing push for added transparency and gender equality to boost her candidacy.

I decided to enter the race only thanks to the new transparency and the push for including female candidates,” Gherman told Foreign Policy during a late April interview in Washington. “Transparency is how this process can get more legitimacy and its how the U.N. can get the most legitimate candidate.”

As an Eastern European woman born in the Soviet Union, fluent in Russian, and with a strong Western pedigree, Gherman thinks her chances are growing to win Security Council support. The longtime diplomat is also counting on her track record in Moldova, a country balancing ties between the EU and Russia, including a frozen conflict involving Russian-backed forces in the country’s Transnistria region, to paint herself as a candidate that can handle the conflicting interests of Security Council members.

Coming from Moldova has great advantage,” said Gherman. “Whether it is poverty goals, crisis management, or peace negotiations, none of these is abstract. We have had to deal with them in our country’s history and I have had to deal with them while in different levels of the Moldovan government.”

The U.N. has an informal rotation system between regions, with previous secretary-generals coming from Africa, Asia, Latin America, or Western Europe. Eastern Europe, a regional bloc formed after the end of Cold War, has never produced a secretary-general. Similarly, all eight of the world body’s previous top diplomats have been male.

Out of the nine candidates who declared their candidacy, seven are from Eastern Europe, and four out of nine are female. But what will ultimately determine who the next secretary-general is will be rivalries and deals cut on the Security Council.

Russia, analysts say, is particularly in favor of the successful candidate being an Eastern European, believing that Moscow would have the best chance of influencing a secretary-general from the region.

Russia definitely does see this as an opportunity to put someone at the U.N. that they have much more leverage over,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “Moscow doesn’t believe they can get someone they can control entirely, but their sense is anyone from Eastern Europe is likely to be more pliable and attuned to Russia’s desires.”

Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat who served as secretary-general from 1997-2006, was backed by the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. South Korean statesman Ban Ki-Moon, the current secretary-general whose term will expire at the end of this year, received strong support from former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration. Moreover, Ban’s candidacy was boosted by Beijing, which heavily favored a candidate from Asia, and threatened to veto non-Asian candidates during the selection process in 2006.

What started as a race about U.N. protocols could quickly become a power play between Moscow and Washington,” said Gowan.

The two non-Eastern Europeans who are running — Helen Clark of New Zealand and Antonio Guterres of Portugal — are seen as favorites by many Western countries, with the United States and its allies saying that the selection process should pick from the widest talent pool possible.

Speaking after General Assembly public hearings April 15 where candidates answered questions, one Security Council diplomat expressed skepticism about whether an Eastern European candidate would be selected.

“They want to say it’s their turn, but they’ve got to get it on merit,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “At the moment their candidates don’t appear, to the people at least I talk to, as good enough to beat Guterres and Clark.”

Russia has expressed support for the regional rotation, but when asked by reporters, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., said Moscow would not use its veto power to block a non-Eastern European candidate.

There are respected, qualified people so we have to be objective,” Churkin said.

I know that some of my rivals count on Russians doing what the Chinese did in 2006,” another candidate for U.N. secretary-general, who asked not to be identified, told FP. “But I personally wouldn’t bet on it.”  

The Security Council will start vetting the candidates in July and will pick one later this year. During that time, the field is expected to grow, including potentially strong contenders such as Argentina’s foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, who served as Ban’s top aide, and María Angela Holguín, Colombia’s foreign minister.

Many have speculated that Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, current director-general of UNESCO, a woman from Eastern Europe with strong U.N. experience, is Moscow’s preferred candidate. But suspicions of softness on issues such as the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, could cause Western powers to block her path forward.

For Gherman, a successful bid will require selling herself to all five permanent members of the council. She has already visited London, Moscow, and Washington to meet with officials, and is set to visit Paris and Beijing in the coming months.

She is counting on her experience as a diplomat who has had to balance the interests of major powers throughout her career to shine through.

“The P-5 countries see virtue in predictability and consistency,” she said. “I have a certain degree of confidence that the way I am and the honest way I have conducted myself for the last 25 years will play in my favor.”

FP’s Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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