Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, will become the next UN Secretary General and Russian experts believe that Moscow is ready to work with him.

Pictured: The newly appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres. Photo: AP

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a series of straw polls to select a replacement for current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. During its final meeting on the issue on Oct. 6, the UNSC unanimously nominated former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres to become the next UN Secretary General, recommending that the General Assembly appoint him for a five year-term starting from Jan. 1, 2017. The UN General Assembly is expected to approve Mr. Guterres’s appointment next week.

Previously, Guterres served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for a decade from 2005 to 2015. The current refugee crisis sparked by the increased turbulence in the Middle East is seen by many experts and officials as one of the most challenging and pressing global issues. Given his experience heading UNHCR, Guterres is uniquely experienced to address this issue at the highest diplomatic level.

As Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, senior policy fellow and director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations told Russia Direct, “Guterres has the track record and the authority to become both a manager of the organization, and a modernizer of it, and a political figure, upholding the UN goals and purposes and holding the member states, especially the bigger powers, accountable to them.”

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Dmitry Polikanov, vice president of the PIR-Center in Russia, is not as hopeful and argues that “the UN is moving by inertia as a large bureaucratic machine and its top managers are more executors than charismatic leaders.” Explaining his pessimism, Polikanov explains that the UN no longer plays a crucial role in deciding the global security agenda or taking compulsory political decisions that countries will actually comply with (not by declarations, but by deeds).

“Therefore, another skillful diplomat, who knows well the situation with refugees, will hardly change the overall vector of the UN’s progress,” Polikanov argues.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN calls Guterres a ‘great choice’

The victory of Guterres in the fight for the seat of secretary general went against the expectations of many diplomats, who believed that the next general secretary would be a woman or a representative of Eastern Europe (neither women nor Eastern Europeans have previously occupied this post).

Ban Ki-moon, in particular, said that he would like to see a woman as his successor, according to the TASS news agency. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, also stressed that “it is the turn of Eastern Europe.”

Right after the UNSC unanimously adopted resolution 2311, which recommends the UN General Assembly to approve Guterres as the next secretary general, Churkin told reporters that Guterres is a “great choice.” He described him as “a person who talks to everybody, listens to everybody, speaks his mind, a very outgoing, open person.”

Churkin also underlined Guterres’ experience as Portuguese prime minister and as the head of the UNHCR, where he traveled the world and saw “some of the most gruesome conflicts we have to deal with.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said Guterres suits Russia fine, as well as other UN heavyweights.

“It is not so important that he is not from Eastern Europe,” Lukyanov told Russia Beyond The Headlines. “In any case, he is a European, and the post of Secretary General has not belonged to Europe since the time of Kurt Waldheim (Secretary General from 1972-1981), so the principle of rotation is being observed. In addition, he is from Portugal, a peripheral country with little political weight. This is beneficial to all.”

Rapnouil agrees that Russia feels comfortable with Guterres, otherwise it would never have joined the consensus. However, Guterres wasn’t one of Moscow’s favorite candidates, but rather, the most realistic one.

“I doubt that Guterres’ views on human rights and even on international security issues coincide with Moscow’s agenda," argues Rapnouil. "I’d say Guterres’ success is also evidence of the limitations of Russia’s influence in the UN. Moscow can play defense quite effectively, and does so with great tactical sense… and with the help of the veto. But its interest isn’t to spoil the UN totally, and it doesn’t have the ability to drive all or even most of the aspects of the decisions made there.”

An administrator with limited influence

 Political analysts believe that the Secretary General, whoever fills the post, is an administrative figure, despite the high status. After all, permanent Security Council member countries, not the Secretary General, set the political themes for the UN. Polikanov argues that the UN lost its influence and charisma over the last 20 years.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Secretary Generals suggested substantial reforms, campaigned for the new role of the organization and devised original concepts of its development. Nowadays one can hardly remember the names of the secretary generals, even Kofi Annan is nearly forgotten, despite his bright personality,” Polikanov said.

Nevertheless, UN members are approaching the choice of Secretary General with care and consideration in order to prevent the excessive concentration of influence in the hands of one of the leading powers. For this reason, the representatives of the Security Council permanent members have never stood for election to the post during the 70-year history of the UN.

“The Secretary General is always a compromise figure,” said Timofey Bordachev, director of the Center of European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. According to Bordachev, the key states ensure that candidates for the post of general secretary do not express the interests of their competitors. This guarantees balance.

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Polikanov questions the independence of the UN Secretary General, arguing that now more than ever this post is dependent on the member states, and notably on the UNSC members. “He has very limited options for promoting his agenda. So frankly speaking, such change is more technical and ritual than substantial,” Polikanov argues.

Moscow’s neutrality

Bordachev is confident that Russia will be able to pursue its interests at the UN, regardless of who sits in the chair of Secretary General. “Russia’s position is self-evident and is not related to specific candidates for Ban Ki-moon’s post,” he said. “I do not think that Russia has any serious stakes in this matter.”

Lukyanov agrees. “If a candidate does not suit any of the ‘big five,’ they are blocked – and that’s all,” he said. “As a result, all those who managed to stand in the vote are equally acceptable to everybody.”

For this reason, he explained, there was no significant difference for Russia between the remaining candidates for the post of Secretary General.