Accusations of threats, Cold War-style treachery and backstage attempts by Russia to punish a former Soviet ally are turning a routine election for a high-profile, but largely ceremonial, UN post into a bitter diplomatic tussle.
The countries vying for the presidency of the 193-nation UN General Assembly are Serbia and Lithuania. Both want the 12-month post that involves chairing the annual gathering of world leaders in New York in September and other UN events.
The UN assembly has no real power. Unlike the 15-nation UN Security Council, which can issue legally binding resolutions and authorize sanctions or military interventions, the assembly’s decisions are recommendations with no legal force.
Still, Lithuanian UN Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis and Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic both want the job, which is currently held by Qatari UN Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser. If neither candidate withdraws, the two will face off in a rare secret-ballot General Assembly vote in June.
Traditionally, the presidency of the General Assembly, which diplomats usually refer to by the initials “PGA,” rotates between the five regional groups of UN member states. From this year to next year, it is the Eastern European Group’s turn to hold it.
In a conversation with a small group of reporters in New York earlier this month, Cekuolis and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis described their annoyance with Serbia seeking the post, which they have been eying since 2004.
“The time has come for us as well to be represented,” said Azubalis, adding that Cekuolis’ 2007 stint as the chair of the Economic and Social Council, one of six main UN bodies, had given Vilnius’ UN envoy vital experience for the job.
Serbia, an EU candidate that is emerging from more than a decade of isolation after the 1990s Balkan wars, has never had a shot at a UN job.
“This is the first time that Serbia put forward a candidacy for a post within the UN system,” Jeremic said in an interview.
“All other countries from our part of the world had their chance to run for and serve either on the Security Council or in the General Assembly,” Jeremic said.
Jeremic has become a familiar face at the UN in recent years, forcefully arguing Serbia’s case in the Security Council and General Assembly against Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade.
However, Jeremic, who is among Europe’s longest-serving foreign ministers, may have other reasons for seeking a job in New York.
Serbian analysts and Western diplomats say Jeremic has lost support within the senior ranks of the co-ruling Democratic Party of Serbian President Boris Tadic, particularly over a number of diplomatic setbacks in Serbia’s opposition to the independence of its former southern province, Kosovo.
Diplomats from the Eastern European Group made it clear they would prefer to avoid turning to the General Assembly to help decide who from their group would take the post. The last time the assembly voted on a PGA was in 1991.
Lithuania, an EU member, said that Russia might be encouraging Serbia to punish Vilnius for past remarks about World War II.
“What we have heard unofficially is that Russia is obsessed about how we see the history of the second World War,” Azubalis said.
Cekulouis said the Russians had warned Lithuania as early as November last year that “there might be other candidates.”