• 2006-09-20

cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

The decision by Vaira Vike-Freiberga to participate in the competition for the next secretary-general of the United Nations flows logically from a number of developments over the past year 's ranging from a recent upgrading of her Web site to working closely with the current secretary general, Kofi Annan. The timing of her announcement was spectacular in terms of public relations, as it hit the headlines just three days before world leaders convened in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

Suddenly the picture of a woman from Eastern Europe was juxtaposed with those of five men'sfour from Asia and one from the Middle East'sand the world opened up atlases and pinpointed the tiny Baltic country.

Immediately, the president's decision was followed by a torrent of speculation on whether she has the proverbial snowball's chance in hell to get the job. Many believe that she doesn't, and they cite two factors: the unwritten rule of regional rotation for the U.N. secretary-general's position, and Russia. There are a few analysts, however, who have not shied from giving Vike-Freiberga better-than-average odds for finishing first, and they offer two counterpoints: Asian countries do not get along and will never be able to agree among themselves on a single candidate, thus raising the necessity for selecting an outside, neutral candidate. Russia, meanwhile, will be willing to negotiate if it is promised something it wants 's e.g., World Trade Organization membership 's which the United States, a prime supporter of Vike-Freiberga, would be willing provide.

Vike-Freiberga's supporters also stress the gender factor, and the Latvian president has accentuated this in her statements and speeches. She even referred to the U.N. as a "boy's club" that has for too long excluded the more peaceful half of humanity. "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 during a press conference in New York this week. Indeed, it is a male-dominated world, and given the poor leadership that reigns far and wide, one could argue it is long overdue that a woman be given the chance at heading the world's premier international organization.

Still, is Vike-Freiberga qualified? Could she handle the responsibilities? The United Nations is in many ways an unwieldy organization, shackled by the size of its membership and often crippled by indecision. Though in the final weeks leading up to his departure we will hear many panegyrics about Kofi Annan, his leadership of the organization has been an utter failure. On the executive side there is the oil-for-food program as a reminder of gross U.N. corruption and incompetence. (In its own probe into this egregious case, the U.N. admitted it had failed to act despite being aware of the problem.) To be fair, the job of secretary-general is arguably the most difficult imaginable'sperhaps just impossible'sas if it is designed for failure. One would almost not want to see Vike-Freiberga assume the role for fear what the stress and frustration might do.

For now, her throwing the hat in the fray is a remarkable event. Only 15 years ago Latvia was a destitute, backward post-communist wreck, and now it can offer the world a potential leader. This is as good a measure of progress as any, and all Latvians, as well as Estonians and Lithuanians, should be proud.