By Thalif DeenUNITED NATIONS, Apr 10, 2012 (IPS) - A politically intense battle between Lithuania and Serbia for the post of president of the next General Assembly sessions has shifted the focus on an anomaly of the Cold War era: the existence of the long-defunct Eastern Europe.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991, Eastern Europe as a political and geographical entity has gradually ceased to exist – except at the United Nations, where it is still alive and kicking.
The 22 countries of the former Eastern Europe, which range from Bulgaria and Georgia to Slovenia and Ukraine, have been virtually absorbed either by the revamped European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
But as one of the five regional groups at the United Nations, Eastern Europe is now claiming the presidency of the 193-member General Assembly, the U.N.’s highest policy making body, beginning next September.
Like most other electoral positions in the United Nations, the presidency rotates among the five regional groups: the Asian Group, the African Group, the Eastern European Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group, and the Western European and Other States (which includes the United States, Australia and New Zealand).
But many diplomats argue there is no reason for an Eastern European group to exist at the United Nations.
"They are now an appendage of Western Europe," said an Asian diplomat. "They exist at the U.N. purely to seek electoral posts."
James Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum and an insider on U.N. politics, told IPS that Eastern European claims to special status at the U.N. do not fit well into the emerging regional patterns, which involve integration and institution-building in the real world.
"By opting to be part of the European Union, these countries cast their lot with the Western Europeans for a united Europe, which is a positive development," Paul said. But it is hard to see, he argued, how they can have it both ways.
"How can they speak through the voice of the European Union and also through the voice of an Eastern European regional group? They want (to have) their cake and eat it too," he said.
Before the election of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon five years ago, the United States tried to undermine Asia’s claims for the job by promoting an Eastern European candidate for the post.
Then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton publicly hinted the job should perhaps go to an Eastern European.
"If there’s really a principle of geographic rotation, fairness indicates that Eastern Europe get one," he told a U.S. news magazine.
"Asia has already had a secretary-general. When does Eastern Europe get its turn?" he asked in another newspaper interview.
When Ban completes his five-year term in 2016, it is very likely that Eastern Europeans will claim the post. But that decision will eventually be made by the Security Council and the General Assembly.
Since the inception of the United Nations more than 65 years ago, the post of secretary-general has been held by three Europeans, two Asians, one Latin American and two from the African continent - primarily on the basis of geographical rotation.
The line-up is as follows: Trygve Lie of Norway (1946-1953); Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden (1953-1961); U. Thant of Burma (1961-1971); Kurt Waldheim of Austria (1972-1981); Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru (1982-1991); Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996); Kofi Annan of Ghana (1997-2006); and Ban Ki-moon of South Korea (2007 through 2016).
Paul told IPS the battles around regional representation at the U.N. are a sign that something big is happening.
"There has been a major evolution towards regionalism in the real world, as new institutions arise and existing ones gain rapidly in strength," he said.
The African Union, the European Union, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the major players in this game, but there are many others as well.
"We cannot forget the intense battle over enlarged status of the EU in the General Assembly, lasting from September 2010 through May 2011," Paul said.
"But we also should take note of the partnership between the AU and the U.N. Security Council on African security issues which is evolving at a rapid pace," he added.
All this is happening because most nation states are far too small to function effectively in the global system and they are entering into partnerships driven by the need for economic integration and also integration to address security, social policy, infrastructure and other matters.
He pointed out that regional integration is the main path, though it is not the only one.
Much of this change is driven by private economic interests that prefer to operate on a large scale, with regional standards, etc. The "stand-alone" nation is not as credible as it once was, he added.
The two Eastern European contenders for the job of General Assembly president are Lithuania’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis and Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic.
Lithuania claims its candidacy for the post was announced as far back as 2004, on behalf of the Eastern European group.
If the group fails to agree on a single candidate, the General Assembly will be forced to take a vote, which is a rare exception. Traditionally, the election has been by acclamation because of single candidates endorsed by their respective regional groups.
Paul said he would not deny that regional institutions are often not all-embracing and there are real questions as to what constitutes a region.
So, for example, Switzerland and Norway are not EU members and are not even candidates for membership.
"It is a messy reality, but actually less messy than the regional West European and Eastern European groups, due to the fact that the EU has a real process of consultation and democratic decision- making with a parliament and other well-established institutions," Paul said.
It is true, he said, that the EU has a "democratic deficit", but one would not even consider applying such a standard to the regional groups.
"It is clear to me that the evolution towards regional representation is much superior to the alternative, which is ‘representation’ of smaller states by major regional powers," he said.
There will be no easy answers, he said, but the trend is clear: a world in which well-organised regional organisations will have an increasingly important role in global policy making.
And U.N. regional groups played a very important role as long as the organisations were weak or non-existent.
"In the future, they will decline or disappear. The Eastern Europeans will have to recognise this and act accordingly," Paul said.