UNITED NATIONS – Shadows of the Cold War returned to the United Nations in the recent elections for president of the General Assembly, where a previously agreed candidate from Lithuania was challenged and subsequently defeated by a Russian-backed contender from Serbia.
What was expected to be a consensus vote to select a respected European Union candidate was snookered by Serbia.
The United States and many European Union countries were blindsided by the Russian proxy. Their perception: How could Serbia, an internationally reviled country with indicted war criminals among its leadership a dozen years ago, beat Lithuania, a democratic member of the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization?
As one of the Baltic states occupied and later absorbed by the former Soviet Union, Lithuania was a victim many times over from World War II — from the Nazis to the communists.
Thus its independence and regained sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet regime was all the more cherished. Lithuania joined the U.N. in 1991, reflecting a near-miracle of regained prewar sovereignty, and was later admitted into NATO and the EU, the ultimate insurance policies for its defense and its prosperity.
Not everyone in Moscow accepted this fact. Now, with the resurgence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s more proactive political policies, the Lithuanians, who are neighbors of Russia, would be taught a stinging lesson. This was especially true since Lithuania’s candidate, Ambassador Dalius Cekoulis, had been openly critical of former Soviet rule.
Moscow played a deliberate and calculated game of diplomatic chess, enabling Serbia’s “moderate” Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to become a candidate. Though Serbia’s reputation and standing is still shadowed internationally by the war crimes such as Srebrenica and the aggression of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, the current more moderate Serbian government under Boris Tadic has been wisely trying to reintegrate the once-reviled country back toward Europe and becoming a “normal country.”
Foreign Minister Jeremic is best known in U.N. circles as Serbia’s smooth point man in periodic Security Council proceedings concerning Kosovo’s disputed status, the ethnic Albanian former Yugoslav province still claimed by Belgrade.
Yet, just weeks before the U.N. election, the Tadic government was toppled in Belgrade and a new hardline nationalist was elected as Serbian president. Not only did this put Jeremic’s standing as Foreign Minister into question, but it also revived radical images of Serbia that would not likely play well internationally.
The annual election for General Assembly president is usually a pro forma event where regional groups agree to a candidate and the full U.N. membership approves the choice by consensus. The one- year post affords the president’s country not only prestige and status but, more importantly, the opportunity to preside over an agenda of the world body’s membership. This year was the Eastern European group’s “turn” for the top post.
The Assembly president’s duties include presiding over the U.N.’s important autumn debate with world leaders and marshaling votes and debate on resolutions. While most readers are familiar with the far more powerful U..N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, General Assembly presidents such as the respected Nassir al-Nasser of Qatar at present and, in recent years, the controversial Miguel d’Escoto of Nicaragua and Ali Treki of Libya hold lower profiles.
Without question, Russia has longtime cultural, religious and political links to Serbia. Moscow was a patron of Belgrade even during the darkest days of the Balkan wars. Putin’s alignment with Serbia should be seen in this light as much as a diplomatic power play by Russia’s UN delegation.
Nevertheless, this year the selection of the 67th General Assembly president came not by the expected consensus, but by the first contested vote since 1990. The rare secret ballot of 184 members voting produced a quietly expected win for Jeremic with 99 votes and 85 for Cekoulis.
But the key to Serbia’s success was that the solidarity of the 27-member EU broke, and not all countries voted for their fellow member. Serbia chipped away votes from those EU countries that do not recognize Kosovo — Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Poland too was said by some diplomats to have voted for Jeremic given Warsaw’s touchy ties with Vilnius.
Jeremic later was quoted on Belgrade’s independent Radio B-92 website: “We finished the voting with eight votes from the EU and that’s a very good result for someone not a member of the EU.”
Jeremic pointed out that some very influential EU member states had voted for Serbia. “This was a great diplomatic game, like some kind of a world championship finals,” he said. “Russia strongly supported Serbia, but it is not a surprise since Russia has been supporting us in all U.N. issues.”
This General Assembly outcome was a slap to U.S. diplomacy and a harbinger of a more assertive Russia. The game is on.
John J. Metzler (email@example.com) is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).