PARIS, France — After a backfiring power play, ugly even by United Nations standards, things may be looking up at that temple of hope and despair, the headquarters of Unesco.
Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat with fresh ideas and toughness beneath an easy smile, took over as director general Oct. 15 after five rounds of voting in September.
She eclipsed Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni, an abstract painter with plenty of Arab detractors whose promise last year to burn Israeli books didn’t help a lot.
Unesco will add new focus on climate science and water crises while rigorously defending freedom of expression, Bokova told a few reporters over breakfast recently.
With a rueful chuckle that spoke volumes to veteran Unesco watchers, she added: “I hope I can withstand all the pressures.”
To fathom Unesco’s crucial mandate, consider its name: U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The world badly needs what it is supposed to do.
Its programs include one to save minority cultures from slowly vanishing. Another monitors tsunamis to protect coastal populations from disappearing much more rapidly.
But an effective Unesco chief must referee national delegations with conflicting interests and try to shield dedicated experts from politically motivated superiors.
Since the 1970s, when Soviet bloc and Third World states tried to muzzle international news agencies, a dark aura has hung over a world body meant to beam light.
Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the Senegalese director general, backed a plan for governments to license local journalists and foreign correspondents. The U.S. and Britain quit the organization in disgust, then returned when M’Bow’s Spanish successor changed course.
But Koichiro Matsuura of Japan, the next director general, withdrew all press credentials. Reporters, let in only for specific events or appointments, depend on the Unesco press office and often self-serving leaks.
So as delegates gathered in September to pick a new director general, the press — and therefore the public whose taxes pay U.N. dues — peeked in from the edges.
As voting grew heated, the Associated Press reported “at least one person was ejected from the building by Unesco security staff for trying to bribe delegates.”
Unesco spokespeople confirm only rumors of bribery and deny knowledge of anyone being expelled.
From interviews with insiders whose jobs depend on their anonymity and sources I’ve known for years, the overall picture seems clear enough.
One ejectee was Libyan, I’m told, and there may have been an Egyptian or two booted out as well.
Hosni was the early favorite among nine candidates, although some influential Arabs opposed him as a lackey of President Hosni Mubarak and too prone to censorship. Mubarak pushed hard for Hosni, exerting pressure and making deals. So did Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who is virulently allergic to anything Bulgarian, Bokova included.
In 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s then-wife Cecilia flew to Tripoli and pressured Gadhafi to release five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to a firing squad for allegedly infecting 426 children with HIV.
But as Unesco executive board members voted, blocs dissolved and alliances shifted. The final tally gave Bokova a 31-27 victory.
Returning to Cairo, Hosni blamed an American plot, engineered by powerful Jews, and Egyptian papers also blamed France and the European Union, among various others.
Ironically, Bokova started out on the dark side as a young functionary in Bulgaria’s foreign ministry, which moved in lockstep with the Kremlin.
When a reporter at breakfast referred to her father as an apparatchik, she responded with a lesson on stereotypes and prejudgment.
“I was born in 1952, the postwar generation, and we didn’t know anything else,” Bokova said. “My father was a man of conviction, a dedicated communist.”
She studied in Moscow during the Nixon era, when the Kremlin monolith began to come unstuck. Back in Sofia, she joined the foreign ministry, which angled for reform.
“In Bulgaria, dissidence came from within the Communist Party, not from without,” she said. “We had no Charter 77, like Czechoslovakia.”
Her father, editor of Bulgaria’s leading newspaper, opposed party directions and was expelled in 1976. In the foreign ministry, she pushed to abolish exit visas.
“I am happy with what I did,” she said, “and I was never an apparatchik.”
Similarly, Bokova cautioned against drawing sharp lines in defining a worldview. She grew up a small town that was 80 percent Muslim, learning early about diversity.
Her quiet, persuasive diplomacy offers hope. With a yearly budget of only $325 million, Unesco needs all the goodwill it can get to attract more operating resources.
And she promises openness. An Indian correspondent detailed restrictive policies and said, “There is an attitude of ‘Press out!’” Bokova laughed and said, “With me, it’s ‘Press in!’”
That would help. Afterward, I headed for the lobby bookshop for reports on projects I might pursue. I was barely out of the elevator before security goons hustled me outside.