UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly elected Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic on Friday as president of the 193-nation body, ending a diplomatic tussle over a largely ceremonial post that involved allegations of Cold War-style manoeuvres.
Jeremic defeated Lithuanian U.N. Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis, who had accused Russia of backing the 36-year-old Serb to punish Lithuania for its stance that annexation by the Soviet Union after World War Two brought the Baltic nation over four more decades of tyranny.
Belgrade’s top diplomat received a simple majority of 99 votes compared to Cekuolis’ 85 in the election for the 12-month post, which involves chairing the annual gathering of world leaders in New York in September and other U.N. events.
Jeremic will assume the post this September.
But the assembly has no real power. Unlike the 15-nation Security Council, which can issue legally binding resolutions and authorize sanctions or military interventions, the assembly’s decisions are recommendations with no legal force.
Traditionally, the presidency of the General Assembly, which diplomats usually refer to by the initials “PGA,” rotates between the five regional groups of U.N. member states. In 2012-13, it is the Eastern European Group’s turn to hold it.
But since the fractious Eastern European Group was unable to agree on a single candidate, the assembly had no choice but to hold the first full election for the assembly presidency since 1991.
Several diplomats told Reuters that Jeremic’s victory by a slim majority showed how divisive the election was.
Serbia, a European Union candidate emerging from more than a decade of isolation after the 1990s Balkan wars, has never had a shot at a top U.N. job. Jeremic said his victory was the latest step in his nation’s return to the international community.
“A painful era has now come to an end,” Jeremic told the assembly. “Today our nation can proudly stand before the world again, less than two decades after having been left out of this chamber. We are a country in which the transfer of power was accomplished peacefully.”
Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website that it ran an honest and ethical campaign, and decried the “openly hostile position of Russia, who has backed the Serbian candidate.”
“It is worth noting that most of Serbia’s neighbours voted for the Lithuanian candidate,” says the statement.
Jeremic has become a familiar face at the United Nations in recent years, forcefully arguing Serbia’s case in the Security Council and General Assembly against Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade, which the Serbs say was illegal.
Lithuania, which said it had been eying the PGA post since 2004, accused Russia of encouraging Serbia to punish the Baltic state for past remarks about World War Two. Several Western envoys said Moscow was lobbying against Vilnius for Belgrade.
Russia’s annoyance with the former Soviet republic that regained independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to be largely due to remarks Cekuolis made in May 2010 at a General Assembly session commemorating the 65th anniversary of the end of World War Two, U.N. diplomats said.
“To our nation, the end of the war did not bring freedom,” Cekuolis said. “Instead, it resulted in the occupation and renewed annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union.”
“My country was subjected to the rule of another totalitarian regime, that of Soviet communism,” he said.
Russia’s U.N. mission made no attempt to hide its irritation with Cekuolis’ remarks, but vehemently denied any role in the candidacy of Serbia, a strong Russian ally, for the PGA post.
Last month, Janusz Bugajski at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies wrote in The Washington Post that Russia’s drive to punish Lithuania was a worrying sign of what one can expect now that Vladimir Putin is Russia’s president again.
“Putin seeks to promote Russia’s dubiously glorious history to restore its position as a global power,” Bugajski said. “Efforts to silence Lithuania are part of a broader strategy to discredit Moscow’s former dominions.”
Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo. Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bernadette Baum