Bulgaria's Bokova sees manipulation in race to be UN chief

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United Nations (United States) (AFP)

Bulgaria's Irina Bokova on Thursday hits back at reports of corruption in the UN agency she has been running for seven years, branding them an attack aimed at undermining her bid to become the next UN chief.

The director of the UN cultural agency UNESCO is considered a strong contender to become the first woman at the helm of the United Nations when Ban Ki-moon steps down on January 1 next year.

The 63-year-old former acting foreign minister is touting her experience as the head of UNESCO in her campaign, but the allegations of mismanagement are casting a pall.

Reports have recently surfaced that Bokova appointed an under-qualified Brazilian national to a senior UNESCO position, in an apparent bid to win over Brazil's support for her UN bid.

"I deplore these types of reports which I wouldn't say are impartial and are manipulative and untrue -- I'm not afraid to say -- totally false," Bokova told AFP in an interview.

During her tenure at UNESCO, there have been 42 investigations of possible conflict of interest, she said, adding that these had resulted in the dismissal of 17 people.

Asked whether she thought the reports were linked to her campaign for the top UN job, Bokova said, "I think so."

"I guess there is a big interest in me and other candidates. Maybe somebody is not happy. I cannot please everybody and it's normal in a democratic world."

"But what I don't like is these types of attacks which are false," she said. "I just don't think this is dignified."

Bokova has came under fire before over her handling of the Palestinian membership in UNESCO, which led to a cutoff of US funding in 2011.

- Moscow's candidate? -

A fluent Russian speaker, Bokova rejected suggestion that she was Moscow's candidate in the race.

"I wouldn't say that I am closer to Russia than I am closer to other countries," she said at UN headquarters.

"Of course I studied in Moscow. I think a lot of Eastern Europeans at that time studied in the Soviet Union. This was the way, this was the life," she said.

A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Bokova said her time in Moscow allowed her to meet progressive thinkers during the US-Soviet detente of the early 1970s and to learn foreign languages.

Aside from English, she speaks fluent French and Spanish.

Bokova drew a comparison with Angela Merkel, noting that the German chancellor had also came under scrutiny over her communist past in East Germany.

"It doesn't prevent her from being a great leader," she said.

In all, there are nine declared candidates to lead the United Nations including seven from eastern Europe, the only region that has yet to be represented in the top job. Four of the candidates are women.

Bokova defended the unwritten rule of regional rotation to fill the secretary-general's post and said choosing a woman to run the United Nations would send an "important message" to countries worldwide.

"The message is that women take political positions seriously, that women can do hard jobs and it will be a message to their national and political environments," she said.

In July, the UN Security Council is expected to begin a round of straw polls to nominate a candidate for secretary-general. The General Assembly is expected to endorse the choice in October.