By Gary Peach
RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced on Sept. 16 that she would join the competition to become the next secretary-general of the United Nations in a long-shot attempt to break up what she dubbed the "all boys club" leadership of the international organization. Her announcement came the day after the three Baltic states' ambassadors to the United Nations submitted her candidacy for the post, which will be vacant when Kofi Annan's term expires at the end of the year. It also finalizes a year of speculation on whether the Latvian president would vie for the post, one of the world's highest profile jobs.
Vike-Freiberga's participation will diversify the competition, as she is currently the only woman and non-Asian in the running. An unwritten rule in the U.N. Security Council dictates that the organization's next leader should come from Asia, though this hasn't put the slightest dent in the Latvian president's hopes. "The point is there should be a choice - to have the doors open and then go ahead, enter the competition, enter the fray, see where the chips may fall but not give up before you've started," she said at a New York press conference on Sept. 18.
Vike-Freiberga was in the United States to take part in the annual gathering of the U.N.'s General Assembly. The Baltic ambassadors' submission seemed to be timed to grant Vike-Freiberga maximum exposure on the eve of the high-profile gathering at the U.N.'s headquarters. The Latvian president made international news over the weekend, which happens rarely.
Even if she fails to get the job, Vike-Freiberga, 68, will be able to use her campaign to bring forward East European and women's issues, the latter of which is of particular importance to the Latvian president. At a press conference in Riga, she said, "With my formal decision to run... I wish to encourage women all over the world to continue their efforts to challenge prejudices and stereotypes. Half of humankind has never been represented at the helm of the U.N. It is time to change this practice."
She reiterated this preference of gender over geography while in New York. "I think that too many women in too many ways have allowed themselves to be discouraged by the knowledge that there are all-boys clubs operating, that the boys get together, that they make deals," she said.
Vike-Freiberga, who was appointed by Annan as a special envoy on U.N. reform, stressed that an East European nation had much to offer the United Nations. "On the 15th anniversary of the renewed independence of our three countries, we wish to draw attention to the fact that, as a result of historical events of the 20th century, the secretary-general of the U.N. has never come from the East European group," she said.
At the same time, the candidate harbors no illusions about her chances. "If I was a betting person, I would not bet my life savings on it, but you've got to realize that everything is possible," she said in New York. Of all the obstacles she faces, perhaps the biggest is Russia. When asked whether Moscow would hinder her candidacy, she said "it remains to be seen."
"Latvia does not have any conflicts with Russia," she said, adding that all three Baltic sates and Russia were transition countries trying to establish free market democracies, and that they had much in common.
For their part, Latvian leaders described the event in superlatives. "This is very big," said Ojars Kalnins, director of the Latvian Institute. "I think it has probably done more to raise Latvia's image, popularity and awareness in the world than anything that has happened in the last few years."
By analogy, Kalnins referred to the recent victory by a Latvian in the New York marathon, which forced many U.S. reporters to open their atlases and find the Baltic state. Vike-Freiberga's candidacy has done the same thing, only on an international scale never before seen. "There has been a lot of coverage in Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Thailand and China," he said.
"As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't really matter for Latvia whether she wins or not," said Kalnins. "What matters is that by being a candidate she has a unique platform to speak from for the next couple of weeks about issues she thinks are important, about Latvia, the Baltic region."
"It's a win-win situation for Latvia," he stressed. The other candidates for the post are South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Public Affairs Shashi Tharoor of India, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, former U.N. disarmament chief Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka and Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid al Hussein.