17 April 2016

Who Will Be The Next Secretary General of UN?

This is probably not the most pressing political issue for most people and certainly not as interesting as watching Donald Trump driving GOP elites nuts.

However, in one respect, the identity of the next Secretary General (SG) is more important than that of the American President: in an era where alliances are fluid and partnerships are formed and dissolved on an almost daily basis, the UN will either move to center stage or will be completely sidelined.

The first clue about the future direction of the organization will be the identity of the next SG.

There are several traditions that govern the selection of the SG.

First, none of the permanent member states, the so-called P5, i.e., the US, UK, France, China and Russia can field a candidate. This is not an official rule, just a gentleman's agreement.

Secondly, the P5 generally prefer someone from a smaller country. Between Brazil and Burma, they always opt for the latter. That is partly due to the fact that they do not want an SG with the clout of a regional power behind him.

Thirdly, the Security Council tends to avoid ex-Presidents or Prime Ministers. Again, partly because they do not want a strong personality with a solid political constituency at home. If you look at the eight previous Secretaries, there is not a single Prime Minister or President among them.

The fourth informal rule is some type of geographical rotation. Members of the UN are divided into five regional groups. They are:
  • the African Group, with 54 member states
  • the Asia-Pacific Group, with 53 member states
  • the Eastern European Group, with 23 member states
  • the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), with 33 member states
  • the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), with 28 member states, plus 1 member state as observer.
So far, there have been 3 SGs from the WEOG, 2 from the Asia Pacific group, 2 from Africa group (one being Boutros-Ghali, who belonged to the Arab sub-group) and one from GRULAC.

As you can see, there has never been an SG from the Eastern European group. And of course, no woman has ever served as SG. Consequently, early speculations were directed towards women candidate from Eastern Europe.

But geographical rotation is not an iron-clad rule (otherwise, 3 out of 8 SGs would not have come from WEOG) and it was and will be put aside whenever the P5 feel like it.


There are eight declared candidates.

Top row (from left):
  • Irina Bokova, 63 - Bulgarian politician and director general of Unesco
  • Helen Clark, 66 - former prime minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) and current head of the UN development programme
  • Natalia Gherman, 47 - Moldovan politician who was deputy prime minister and minister of European integration from 2013-2016
  • Vesna Pusic, 62 - Leader of the liberal Croatian People's Party. Served as a first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign and European affairs until January this year
Bottom row (from left):
  • Antonio Guterres, 66 - Former prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015)
  • Srgjan Kerim, 67 - Macedonian economist and diplomat. Served as Macedonia's foreign minister from 2000-2001 and was president of the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly from 2007-2008
  • Danilo Turk, 64 - Former president of Slovenia (2007-2012). Served as an ambassador to the UN from 1992-2000 and as the UN assistant secretary general for political affairs from 2000-2005
  • Igor Luksic, 39 - Former prime minister of Montenegro (2010-2012) and current minister of foreign affairs
Beyond these eight candidates there is talk about Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister and Angela Merkel the current German Chancellor.

Starting from that end of the list, in the last year or so there were rumors about Merkel being the perfect candidate and in recent weeks, these speculations intensified quite a bit.

But I can categorically rule her out by using my own list.

Germany is practically a member of the P5 since 2006, as the permanent members wanted to include Germany in their dealing with Iran (the moniker is P5+1). A German SG would go against the spirit of the P5 gentleman's agreement.

Secondly, Germany is a world power and certainly more important than two or three current members of the P5, depending on how you count. No P5 state would want to see the leader of such a powerful nation at the helm of the UN. At least one of them would veto Merkel.

Then there is the principle of choosing someone not quite as high as a Chancellor but rather stick with a former minister or a senior diplomat.

Finally, regardless of the fact that Merkel was born in East Germany, from a geographical rotation perspective, Germany is still part of WEOG. A German SG would mean the 4th SG for that group.

I can also add that Merkel would probably see this as a demotion for herself and never apply for it in a million years.

And to finish off, I doubt that she has the diplomatic skills and patience needed for the job.

Kevin Rudd, check list: important regional power, former PM and wrong geographical membership. And probably zero push from his own country.

If you look at the official male candidates, three of them are ex-Presidents and PM and one is from the wrong group.

And of course, they are not women. As Justin Trudeau said, it is 2016.

For the women candidates, let's go through the list.

Vesna Pusic is a Croat. Croatia has a tainted history with other Eastern European states due to their Ustashe regime, which was a bloody mixture of Roman Catholicism, fascism and Croation ultra-nationalism and they were responsible for the murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anybody they didn't like, including fellow Croats.

I don't see a Croat representing Eastern Europe.

Moldovan Natalia Gherman may fit the bill in all respects except for her country's turbulent relations with Russia. As it was part of the Soviet Empire (wedged between Russia and Ukraine) Russia is not happy with its efforts to move closer to the West. A Moldovan as SG of UN would mean a green light to Moldova'a membership to the EU.

Unlikely to succeed and very probably to be vetoed if she climbs up after the first round.

Helen Clark has two problems: one is being a former PM (three-term) and two, belonging to the wrong group. Besides these negatives, she has a fearsome reputation as a dogged and stubborn politician and as such, she might not be ideally suited to facilitate dialogue and diplomacy. Her resume is that of a doer and go-getter.

In fact I can say this: if the P5 powers want someone who will turn the UN into a powerful presence that can vigorously push its principles, she would make a great Secretary General.

The problem is that I doubt that the P5 want a strong UN.

That brings us to Irina Bokova. If you go through my list, she ticks every box.

Most importantly, her tenure at UNESCO was marked by her willingness to listen to member states and to act like their emissary. Upon their urging, she reformed the organization and turned it into a much smaller entity.

If the P5 is interested in a weaker UN that is willing to work for them (rather than standing up to them) then she is clearly the best candidate from any regional group, regardless of gender.

I should also add that she is dialogue-oriented and highly diplomatic and self-effacing. And she is the only candidate who speaks fluently four of the six official UN languages. (English, French, Russian and Spanish)

Apparently, China, Russia and France look warmly on her candidacy and the US and the UK are said to be on the sideline. If you ask me too much has been made of her decision to allow the Palestinian vote (which granted them UNESCO membership) and the American opposition to it.

If you are one of my long time readers you might remember that, at the time, I maintained that the US was aware of the UNESCO membership bid and they encouraged it behind closed doors as a way to further their own plans for the region. So, I am not convinced by the idea that the US might be opposed to her candidacy for that reason.

Consequently, if, as I believe, the P5 is interested in keeping UN as a docile organization that will not make life difficult for them, Irina Bokova has a better shot at this than the rest.

But there are still many things that can go wrong between now and September, such as the resurgence of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.

In any case, if Mrs. Bokova is selected, you will know what the P5 are thinking about the future direction of the UN.


To bolster my checklist:
Brian Urquhart, one of the first U.N. employees ever hired, wrote in his memoir, “A Life in Peace and War,” that the secretive selection process resulted in “a candidate who will not exert any troubling degree of leadership, commitment, originality, or independence.” John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in his own memoir that his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, confided to him that the U.S. preferred a weak U.N. leader. “I am not sure we want a strong secretary-general,” he recounted of her private comments.

03 April 2016

Is A Perfect Storm Brewing for Erdogan?

In my previous post, I outlined the precarious position Turkey found itself thanks to the misguided and selfish actions of its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And I posed the question whether Erdogan can be stopped.

Let's review it together.

Erdogan's polarizing tactics worked well and there are no internal actors left to put up a fight with him. Opposition is fragmented and the main opposition party CHP has never been able to set the agenda or counter Erdogan's discourse effectively. Consequently, the electorate believes that there is no viable alternative to Erdogan.

External actors do not have much leverage as Erdogan seems to have outfoxed them through a number of cynical moves.

Last year, he allowed (perhaps actively encouraged is a better term) a huge refugee exodus towards Europe as a way to blackmail the European Union (EU).

Thousands died in the process but the gambit was successful. Hundreds of thousands reached Europe, threatened the Schengen space and exposed EU's internal divisions.

EU crumbled, offered a sizable bribe to strike a cynical and possibly illegal deal and promised to be silent about Erdogan's strategery.

In fact, the sharp decline in the number of refugees within days of the deal clearly shows the artificial nature of the crisis:
Between March 20 — the day the deal went into effect — and March 26, daily arrivals fell from 930 to 78. On Sunday there were 73 arrivals, according to official figures published by the Greek government.
As for the US, when Erdogan realized that Obama was turning against him he made a u-turn and offered Incirlik airbase as the coalition HQ. He figured that he could participate in sorties against ISIS only to hit Syrian Kurds. He gambled that the Americans might allow some operating leeway for the use of Incirlik.

And they did.

In fact, the only black spot in Erdogan's foreign policy moves aimed at neutralizing his potential opponents was his disastrous chess game and the check mate he suffered after the peculiar jet downing incident.

In the span of a few months, Putin destroyed the oil trade between ISIS and Turkey, stopped the arms and personnel flow from Turkey to ISIS, energized Syrian troops and caused ISIS to lose 22 percent of its territory.

Russia is leaving because Putin is reluctant to risk a confrontation that might pull NATO in but by leaving behind the S400 missiles, heavy artillery and armored vehicles he is still boxing Erdogan in.

The long rumored palace coup whereby the founding members of AKP Bulent Arinc and Abdullah Gul (former Prime Minister and President) were going to form a new political party to challenge Erdogan is a case of too little too late.

While it is true that senior AKP figures have been attacking Erdogan since mid-January, something unheard of in Islamist circles, Erdogan ended up getting the upper hand and silencing them effectively.

Bulent Arinc, former Deputy PM and a smarmy faker of sincerity, criticized Erdogan sharply throughout January and February and he even hinted that he might disclose where the skeletons are buried.

Similarly, Abdullah Gul had a long meeting with Erdogan after which he was reported to have said that he pulled the plug on him (he later denied that).

But nothing came out of these outbursts as Erdogan now controls the media and government contracts. Any criticism is met with a barrage of counter attacks by troll-journalists in the pro-Erdogan media. And given the spoils distributed by Erdogan himself in the form of large government contracts, no media owner or CEOs of large corporation want to displease him.

However, a recent development might turn these disparate elements into a perfect storm that could engulf Erdogan's increasingly autocratic presidency.

Iranian Money Launderer Arrested in the US

This haggard and well-fed man in the picture is Reza Zarrab, Iranian-born and naturalized Turkish businessman who was arrested in Miami last week.

He was indicted by Preet Bharara, the pugnacious US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The indictment alleges that Zarrab was a key player in the international scheme to help Iran bypass UN and US sanctions and asks for up to 70 year jail sentence and confiscating of his multi-billion dollar assets.

You see, when Iran was pushed out of the SWIFT international money transfer system used by almost all companies in their daily transactions, it had to find a way to sell its oil and import goods. 
Tehran then decided to use a bypass system based on Turkey’s Halkbank. SWIFT was sidelined first by setting up front companies in China. Money was sent to the Chinese bank accounts of these companies from Iran as if they were reimbursements for exports. That money was instantly transferred to front or real companies in Turkey, also as export reimbursements. Gold bought with that money was moved to Iran via Dubai. 
And Iran used those gold bullions to import what it needed, including, I am assuming, hardware for its nuclear program.

Zarrab and Babak Zanjani were the two pillars of this oil-for-gold-to-evade-sanctions arrangement. Zanjani, recently sentenced to death in Iran, handled the Iranian end and Zarrab was in charge of the Turkish side. 

A Turkish investigation showed that he was paying huge sums to the CEO of Halkbank and several Cabinet ministers.
Zarrab, who assumed the Turkish name of Riza Sarraf after acquiring Turkish citizenship, allegedly was running his operation with the cooperation of some Cabinet ministers and their offspring. According to a local allegation, Zarrab was paying the minister of economy, Zafer Caglayan, a commission — that is, a bribe — of 0.3% to 0.4%. Zarrab is known to have paid Caglayan 103 million Turkish lira (some $35 million) and to have paid Halkbank CEO Suleyman Arslan 16 million lira (about $5.67 million).
When the whole thing became public, Erdogan moved swiftly to quash the investigation. He fired or removed all prosecutors, judges and police officers involved in the case. And for good measure, he passed a publication ban to prevent journalists asking question about it.

Despite leaked audio tapes clearly implicating Erdogan in the corruption scandal, he went on to get himself elected President in 2014 and last year, he helped his party get almost 50 percent of the vote in legislative elections. 

This is largely due to the fact that he succeeded in convincing his constituency that, regardless of the validity of the allegations, the Gulen sympathizers were trying to get rid of him and, as I mentioned in my previous post, nothing terrifies the Islamists and the conservative coalition behind Erdogan more than the massive backlash that they will very likely face after his departure. 

Now, if Zarrab decides to cooperate with the US authorities, as I suspect he will for a reduced jail sentence and a portion of his assets, the pro-Erdogan media will simply claim that the US government is in cahoots with Fethullah Gulen, the moderate Islamist preacher who supported Erdogan from the beginning and provided most of the technocrats that assisted his successive Cabinets.

The pro-government newspaper Sabah used Twitter to share a doctored photograph that supposedly showed him [Bharara] collecting an award from a charity linked to Mr Gulen, the President’s arch-foe.
Erdogan, who survived worse crises, would not be worried under normal circumstances. He would assume that the US would not push the Zarrab investigation too far, as Turkey remains an important player in the region. And if unpleasant revelations surfaced, he could always use his almost total control over media to block them and to convince his supporters to stick with him. 

There are two problems with this normally reasonable calculation.

Contrary to what new Turkish Twitter fans of Bharara think, this is not a move directed against Erdogan. In my opinion, it is the first critical move to strengthen Rouhani's administration in Iran and to force a significant reform of the Islamic Republic.

Zanjani and Zarrab were helping Ahmadinejad's conservative administration to evade sanctions. All the corruption and money laundering that went with it are their problem. Not only them but the religious clergy and the Revolutionary Guard, who supported them, are implicated.
Since taking office, Rouhani has systematically sought to discard corrupt remnants of the Ahmadinejad era and also counterbalance the IRGC and other hard-line elements. Indeed, in the past two years, Zanjani has been sentenced to death for allegedly embezzling oil money, businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi has been hanged for defrauding Iran’s banking system and Ahmadinejad’s First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi has begun serving a 5-year prison term for bribing members of parliament.
In that context, I view the Bharara indictment as Obama Administration helping Rouhani curb the power of the conservative clergy and transform Iran into a more moderate force.

The confrontation is already happening.
While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphasized the “resistance economy” in his March 20 Nowruz speech, Rouhani underscored the necessity of constructive engagement with the world.
Zanjani could not point fingers as he is in Iran and that would only hasten his execution. But Zarrab will. And when he exposes the scheme, he will implicate not only Ahmadinejad but also, by sheer necessity, Erdogan and his party.

This context could prove much more problematical for Erdogan than a simple corruption scandal. He has been claiming that Turkey, and therefore he was the leader of the Sunni alliance in the Middle East. As Iran is the bete noire of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and every other Sunni country in the region, a Zarrab confession would mean that Erdogan was, Allah forbid, helping the Shia.
This would have serious repercussions inside the core Islamist behind AKP as well. As I keep repeating, Sunni Muslims hate Shia more than the Jews, Christians (as they are People of the Book after all) and even perhaps the atheist infidels.

It is a big deal.

When that happens, Abdullah Gul and dissidents within AKP might surface as a solution that is acceptable to everyone.

Think about it.

What is it that everyone says is the main problem with replacing Erdogan and AKP? Why, they have no alternative. CHP is a joke, MHP is a bigger joke and HDP, well, they are an ethnic party. AKP is serious, they are the governing party. Look what they have achieved in the last 14 years.

Well, what if the other founding member of AKP were to take over. 

He and Arinc and Celik were part of the success story, right? In fact, these were the folks who distanced themselves from Erdogan as soon as he began acting crazy. They are clean and they were not part of the Zarrab scheme. They can take over and return to the pre-2013 era of stability and economic prosperity with no polarization. 

The non-Islamist would be relieved as they had been looking at Erdogan as someone who could not be toppled. There were opinion polls from two years ago indicating that CHP voters would support Gul as President.

The Islamist core group would be happy as a clean and pleasant Islamist would come to power. No backlash and no secular government to replace AKP.

The Kurds might extend a hopeful hand that they would assume that Gul and his people would grab.

And the business people would join the party seeing a period of stability and prosperity.

Externally, EU, Russia and the US would rejoice.

Regional actors would be pleased. That improbably includes Iran, Syria and the Sunni powers. Which tells you how isolated Erdogan really is.

In that scenario, Erdogan would be all alone. 

Perfect storm indeed.

We'll see.