An international standoff is brewing over alleged attempts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva as candidate for the post of UN Secretary General.
Russia issued yesterday (11 September) a stern warning that it finds “unacceptable” the attempts by Merkel to influence Bulgaria and replace Irina Bokova, its candidate for the top job, by her compatriot Georgieva.
The controversy is based on different interpretations of discussions held during the G20 summit held in Hangzhou, China, on 4-5 September, when Merkel reportedly tried to obtain the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin for Georgieva.
On 10 September the Bulgarian press reported that at the G20 summit, Merkel obtained Putin’s support for Georgieva. This however was strongly denied by the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova. Apparently, the Bulgarian press reports were on the basis of information intentionally leaked by the government in Sofia.
Zakharova yesterday (11 September) said any information that Russia might be supporting such a move were “a lie”.
The Bulgarian press also reported on Saturday that following the news from the G20 summit, the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was considering withdrawing Bokova’s nomination and nominating Georgieva instead. According to sources, Borissov has held a telephone conversation with Merkel on Friday.
A candidate of other countries?
Simultaneously, rumours started circulating that Hungary, Croatia and Latvia would also nominate Georgieva, “with German support”. Strictly speaking, nothing prevents a country nominating a foreign national, although this has never happened before. Officially Budapest, Zagreb and Riga made no comments.
Attempts to exert influence on countries’ decisions to nominate one or another candidate are “unacceptable”, Zakharova said,
“Mrs Merkel was told clearly and categorically [by Putin] that the nomination of a candidate for the post of UN secretary-general from a country is the exclusive sovereign decision of this country, and any attempts to directly or indirectly influence such a decision are unacceptable”, she added.
Significantly, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also made comments, mirroring the statements by Zakharova.
Borissov nominated Bokova, the head of UNESCO, as Bulgaria’s candidate for the post of UN Secretary General on 8 February. Just before that he announced that Georgieva will continue with her duties in the European Commission.
But the nomination did not end speculations that Georgieva would join the race, especially if Bokova fails the straw poll votes. Three such votes were held so far, confirming Bokova as the leading female candidate in the race. Many consider her chances to be quite good, largely because of her experience in leading the UN’s largest agency.
It is not impossible that a new candidate joins the race for the UN top job, although at this stage the move would be highly unusual. By July, 12 candidates emerged and passed hearings which were broadcast live. Three successive straw polls were also held. The process is aimed at discouraging candidates with little support. The candidates of Montenegro and Croatia have already withdrawn from the race.
The Code of Conduct of commissioners does not allow them to be job-hunting. However, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker apparently supports Georgieva’s ambitions for the UN top job, and even took her to a recent visit to St Petersburgh, which was seen as an effort to win Russian support.
Juncker’s chief of cabinet, Martin Selmayr, retweeted a link to a Bulgarian publication on the expectation about Georgieva’s nomination, adding in his comment that this development would be a “great loss” for the Commission, but that she would make a strong UN Secretary General and “make many Europeans proud”.
— UN Report (@UN_Report) September 10, 2016
Would be great loss for @EU_Commission. But Kristalina would make strong UNSG, and many Europeans proud. + strong signal for gender equality
— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) September 10, 2016
Speaking to euractiv.com, Dick Roche, a former Irish minister for European affairs who supports Bokova, regretted that the Bulgarian official candidate was undermined by a compatriot.
“Bokova has been the subject of a vicious whispering campaign by Georgieva’s centre-right allies which does little credit to its intended beneficiary but which Bokova has withstood with great dignity”, he said,
“Georgieva has been able to recruit some powerful allies in her efforts to pressurise the Bulgarian government to withdraw its nomination for Bokova and to put her name forward instead”, he added.
Roche reminded that last June Georgieva attended a Bilderberg meeting in Dresden where the former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso promoted her possible candidacy for the UN position.
“The activities of Commissioner Georgieva and her supporters have gone way past the line of what is acceptable”, Roche said.
He called the reported intervention by Merkel at the G20 summit as “perhaps the most surprising of all and one which is likely to have very significant ramifications”.
“Chancellor Merkel’s intervention is not only a disappointing example of improper pressure being put on a smaller EU member state but it is clumsy on several different levels”, he went further.
The Irish politician argued that Merkel’s reported move was not only “an insult” to the choice that Bulgaria has made, but that it was also disrespectful of the sovereign decisions made by Slovenia, Slovakia and Portugal, three other EU members who have strong candidates for the race.
He also interpreted the Russian official reaction as a sign that Moscow would veto any possible nomination of Georgieva.
“It seems more than likely that Commissioner Georgieva, if she does manage to grab the Bulgarian nomination, will attract at least one P5 veto making her entire campaign an exercise in futility”, he said. The “P5” are the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely Russia, USA, China, UK and France.
“If Bulgaria were to surrender to the pressure under which its leadership has been subjected, this would provide Eurosceptics with yet another example of ‘Brussels interference’, raise some profound questions as to the way the EU Commission functions and confirm the cynics’ views about ‘stitch ups’ in the UN”, Roche said.
He insisted that the case was highlighting “fundamental questions” about what has been going on within the Commission and about the use of Commission resources to further the ambition of one of its members.
“This whole debacle marks a low point for the EU diplomacy”, Roche hammered out.
Bulgarian media reported that Borissov would be willing to wait until 26 September, when the next straw poll will be held, to see what Bokova’s chances are, before making any move. On 3 October the first straw poll with colored ballots for the P5 members will be held.