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Moscow outmaneuvers U.S. diplomats at UN with Serbia win

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Shadows of the Cold War returned to the UN  during the recent elections for President of the General Assembly where a previously agreed to candidate from Lithuania was challenged, and subsequently defeated, by a Russian-backed contender from Serbia.  What was originally expected to be a consensus vote selecting a respected European Union candidate was snookered by Serbia.

Clearly the United States and many European Union countries were blindsided by the Russian proxy, the perception being how could Serbia, an internationally reviled country with indicted war criminals among its leadership just a dozen years ago, beat Lithuania, a staunch democratic member of the European Union and NATO?

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic

As one of the Baltic states occupied and later absorbed by the former Soviet Union, Lithuania was a victim many times over from WWII from the Nazis to the communists. Thus her independence and regained sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet regime was all the more cherished.

Lithuania joined the UN in 1991, a near miracle of regained pre-war sovereignty, and was later admitted into NATO and the European Union, the ultimate insurance policies for her defense and her prosperity. Not all in Moscow accepted this fact.  Now with the resurgence of  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s more pro-active 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, whereby Serbia’s “moderate” Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic  would 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 his once reviled country back towards Europe and into becoming a “normal country.”

Foreign Minister Jeremic is best known in UN 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 UN election, the Tadic government was toppled in Belgrade and a new hard-line nationalist was elected as Serbian President. Not only did this put Jeremic’s standing as Foreign Minister into question, but revived the radical images of Serbia which would not likely play well internationally.

The annual election for the General Assembly president is usually a pro-forma event where regional groups agree to a candidate and the full UN membership approves the choice by consensus.  Yet the one year post affords the president’s country not only prestige and status, but more importantly, presides over an agenda of the world body’s  membership. This year was “the turn” of the Eastern European group for the top post.

The Assembly President’s duties include presiding over the UN’s important autumn debate with world leaders and marshalling votes and debate on resolutions.

While most readers are familiar with the far more powerful Secretary General Ban Ki- moon, General Assembly Presidents such as the current respected Nassir al-Nasser of Qatar, or 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 has been 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.

But 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 here’s the key to Serbia’s success. Of the 27 member European Union, solidarity for Lithuania broke and not all countries voted for their fellow member.  Serbia chipped away votes from those EU countries which do not recognize Kosovo; Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and 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 is a very good result from someone who is not a member of the EU.” Jeremić also 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. Russia strongly supported Serbia but it is not a surprise since Russia has been supporting us in all issues in the UN,” the Minister explained.

This General Assembly outcome was a slap and setback to U.S. diplomacy and a harbinger of a more assertive Russia.  The game is on.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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