It is not every day that small states get to compete for the world’s top diplomatic position. In this year’s selection of the United National Secretary General, Bulgaria’s candidates were seen as top favorites. In a series of inexplicable and illogical moves, however, the government in Sofia not only wasted this chance, but its big hopes for global relevance ended up in a complete diplomatic fiasco. The new UN Secretary-General was not a Bulgarian. Neither was he an Eastern European, nor a female.
Many people question the United Nation’s ability to solve international conflicts, pointing out, perhaps, that the UN Secretary-General has very limited actual power beyond diplomacy and speeches, that the election process for the UN Secretary-General is opaque and undemocratic. While all these claims are perhaps valid, for more than a few weeks, the only thing that mattered for Bulgaria’s political elite and public opinion was winning the UN Secretary-General Elections. For the first time in the history of the United Nations, a country was running for the top position in the organization with not one, but two candidates… and that was Bulgaria.
The hype continued for some very long weeks until the Security Council announced that the victory went to Antonio Guterres, from Portugal. Bulgaria had missed its chance to shine on the global scene. While a favorable outcome would have done little to help the country, the negative result did show two important things: 1) there is a lack of foreign expertise in the government, and 2) that small states still fall victim to the games of the big players on the international stage.
From where do Bulgaria’s hopes to have a UN Secretary-General come? Firstly, according to an informal and unwritten rule, the regions around the world switch the position of the UN Secretary-General on a rotational basis, and only Eastern Europe has not had a representative at the top position. Moreover, one year before the elections, Russia clearly stated that they would be willing to support a candidate only from this region. At the same time, the United Nations has never seen a woman leading the organization. Multiple representatives from the UN, including the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, have expressed their wishes to see more women candidates. Equality Now launched the campaign “Time for a Woman: United Nations—it’s been over 70 years, elect a female Secretary-General,” while a committee of women in academia and civil society advocated that “We have had eight male secretaries-general and our ninth should be a woman.” In such an environment, the names of two Bulgarian women appeared in the public space: Kristalina Georgieva, the Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Budget, and Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. Politico, Deutsche Welle, the New York Times, and the Economist were all describing the two Bulgarian women as top favorites and potential leaders in the race.
Despite Bulgaria’s strong candidates, the government in Sofia played their cards in the worst possible way, and quite naturally, ended up with a massive fiasco. Firstly, the country’s first official nomination, that of Ms. Bokova, came in the last days of the government of Plamen Oresharski, Bulgaria’s former prime minister. Oresharski, supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a traditional supporter of Russia, moved to nominate Ms. Bokova just a few weeks before the elections. Whether the decision was made under the influence of Russia or not, it is undeniable that this action was premature, without any consideration and coordination with Bulgaria’s EU allies and the United Nations. When the opposition came into power, the new prime minister Boyko Borisov surprisingly confirmed the nomination of Irina Bokova. Well-aware that a possible nomination for UNSG needs to collect the support of all five veto powers in the Security Council, the government once again did not make an attempt to seek support from the other allies. At the same time, the press in the UK and the United States had already started circulating news reports, calling Bokova “Putin’s darling.” Basic diplomatic training and foreign affairs expertise require probing and consolidating the support before moving into a formal procedure for a nomination. The Bulgarian government made a big mistake, one which would come to haunt them.
When the first polls came in from New York, the expected became obvious for the Bulgarian government. Bokova was ranking between third and fifth place, with multiple “discourage” votes—a sign that some of the veto powers might actually oppose her nomination. In a panic move, the prime minister Borisov set an ultimatum: if Ms. Bokova did not come among the first two candidates on the last straw poll, the government would nominate someone else. Naturally, Bokova kept her “discourage” votes and came sixth in that poll. About a week before the big “open” vote with colored ballots, the Bulgarian government withdrew its support from Ms. Bokova and nominated Ms. Georgieva as the “sole and unique” candidate of Bulgaria for the United Nations Secretary-General race. Reports were claiming that the new nomination came after pressure from Germany and the UK, who still wanted to see an Eastern European Secretary General, but were not willing to support someone close to Putin. After the government’s surprising pirouette, Bokova stated that she saw no reason to drop out of the race, and pledged to continue fighting. This is how Bulgaria found itself in the uncomfortable situation of having two candidates running against each other. While the new nomination was perhaps a desperate move to save Eastern Europe’s chances of winning, announcing a candidate without previously securing support and then changing your mind only a week before the election does not reveal great diplomatic expertise. Realizing the historic chance and being hindered by insufficient preparation is unforgivable in foreign politics.
That the government made a huge mistake became clear for everyone, when at the very first “open voting,” Portugal’s candidate António Guterres gathered support from all veto powers and was elected the new Secretary General. To make things worse, the old Bulgarian candidate, Bokova, came four places ahead of the new candidate Georgieva. However, this would not have mattered much, because China and Russia supposedly vetoed Georgieva, while the UK and the US vetoed Bokova. Once again, Bulgaria’s crossroads position and ambiguous position along US-Russia axis did not help the country at all, but it fell prey to the big players’ interests and strategies. Incapable and inefficient governments often close the vicious circle, where small states comfortably accept the secondary roles of order followers.