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Analysis: Bokova will need goodwill at Unesco

The new Unesco director general, a Bulgarian, takes over after a controversial selection process.

Bulgaria's former foreign minister Irina Bokova smiles after being designated the candidate for the post of director general of Unesco at its Paris headquarters, Sept. 22,2009. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

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.