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Irina Bokova – first East European lady to head UNESCO

\n Upon her election to the post of UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova stated she had never believed there was any “clash of civilizations” adding that she would work for a spirit of tolerance and dialogue among different cultures.\nPressphoto: BTA
Irina Bokova would be the 10th Director General of UNESCO and this would be the first woman to head the organization. It is also for the first time that a representative of East Europe would take the lead in such an important world institution. How did this victory come about?
The battle was a long one. Never before had the option of reaching the 5th round of elections been put into practice, even though it is theoretically possible. Irina Bokova and her opponent Farouk Hosni from Egypt who reached the final round were the candidates who had started their election campaigns first, putting in all their efforts. Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni first applied for the position in 2007. Irina Bokova started her campaign in 2008. Both candidatures had their purely geographical reason for success. Keeping to the unwritten principle for rotation at the head of large world organization, this time the turn had come to a representative either form the Arab world or from East Europe to step into office.

However, 71 years old Egyptian painter and culture minister made in 2008 an inadmissible mistake, saying at the Parliament of Egypt that he is ready to burn down any Jewish book if found in the Alexandrian library. For a contender expecting to head a world organization for culture and education, his words were outrageous. First of all Israel and all intellectuals of Jewish origin all over the world rang the bell against such a threat and a shame for UNESCO. Hard times came upon the until-then favorite for the position – Farouk Hosni. Egyptian propaganda didn’t fail to perceive in criticism against Hosni a new episode from the “clash between civilizations” – the poor South and the well-off North, between the Muslim world and the rest of it. That tightened the rows and Egypt’s candidature received the support of the African Union and the Arab League. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak even succeeded to extract a promise for neutrality from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. French President Sarkozy also kept supporting to the very end the Egyptian candidature because France and Egypt are co-chairing the Mediterranean Union – a French initiative he is very fond of.

In this battle, which some called the “clash between civilizations”, Irina Bokova was supported by her small country Bulgaria in addition to her own diplomatic professionalism and prestige. Bulgaria’s Ambassador to Paris relied on personal contacts and lobbying, touring in the course of a year accompanying Bulgaria’s President or Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, thus visiting 45 UNESCO countries.
The elections for director general of UNESCO have the peculiarity that they are held in up to 5 rounds. The first ones of them are rather an individual assessment of the candidates. The large-scale strategic re-grouping comes towards the end of the competition. Irina Bokova made a successful start coming after the first round with one vote ahead of her major rival from Europe European Commissioner on Foreign Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and taking a place immediately after Hosni. Bokova’s increased advantage over Waldner after the third round made the Austrian withdraw “in the name of European unity” and “the values of the Organization”. In fact West Europe didn’t stand chances because of its 6 UNESCO directors general up to date.

Bulgaria’s candidature, however, proved to be more successful from the stand of this country’s being rather a mediator-state, belonging neither to the poor South nor the well-off North, as a French journalist said. Bulgaria is a country whose traditions in tolerance towards the different and dialogue between cultures is very well known from the activities of Ambassador Bokova also as member of the Executive Council of the Organization. That in turn won her even more supporters. Observers on the election assessed as “heart-attack giving” the two last ballots. At the 4th round Bokova and Hosni ended even. A final option of drawing lots was launched as possible in case the equal number of votes is repeated at the 5th round, too. On this case, however, observers feared an insufficient legitimacy of the next head and the probability for the General Assembly of the Organization to refuse his/her approval. Fortunately Irina Bokova won with 4 votes. And she immediately extended her arm to her rivals by saying that she never believed any of the talk of a “clash between civilizations” and that she would be working for establishing a spirit of tolerance and dialogue among cultures.

Written by: Maria Dimitrova
English version: Iva Letnikova
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