Sleepless in Geneva: A Tale of Two Posts

It should have been simple and straightforward. Mr. Michael Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the parastroika Soviet Union and his Foreign Minister Edouard Schevernadze wanted to assist one of their capable young former assistants. They approached their former Deputy Foreign Minister, currently Director General of the UN European Headquarters in Geneva, Vladmir Petrovsky to help. He really tried. But somehow matters became more complicated, as is usually the case with some posts in Geneva.

Whenever an important post opens in Geneva, not only European governments, but most senior staff at United Nations are interested. Geneva in particular is a tempting operation. It is a dream appointment because the pay is higher than almost anywhere else. A director's post in Geneva for many of its occupants is even more tempting than an assistant secretary general's post elsewhere. The quality of life, the demands of work and the general atmosphere is much more conducive. So when the post of director of conference services has opened recently there were many interested applicants. Geneva after all is mainly a servicing office where many meetings and conferences are held. If you control that side of work you mainly are the most sought after person at the Palais des Nations, after the Director General . The modus operendi there is not only to write requesting a conference room for a meeting. One has to get to know the officer in charge, politely first call for a lunch or possibly a coffee at conference room six on the third floor, which in fact is a pleasant coffee lounge. It is then, after accomplishing a proper personal relation when you would mention the question of the meeting and send the eventual letter. A fairly civilized operation indeed.

By July there were three frontrunners. One was someone who had served in the same office for many years before moving to Vienna where she had to handle the same tasks in the conference area. Liselotte Waldheim has long seniority D1 and has for a while been expecting a higher level D2 post. Supporting her of course, was her own government and many friends of hers from the days of New York, Geneva and Vienna. She also had her adversities from the same locations. Another determined candidate was Mehmet Ulkumen, Turkish Chief of Protocol, whose active pursuit of a D2 reached intensive lobbying proportions and involved every secretary Gen. Since Javier Perez de Cuellar to Kofi Annan.

As Chief of Protocol, Ulkumen had access to influential visitors and paid a special effort to gain friends and influence people not only in Geneva, but also in New York, when decisions are often taken. Similarly, Ulkumen had his own adversities and accusers of improper behaviors. There were investigations which he felt would not damage his image, but some others thought placed him in a vulnerable situation. Mr. Ulkumen's overconfidence and his demanding job led him to tread on so many feet, which possibly waited for the time to get even. Our other candidate was an experienced, old hand in the conference services, who actually started as an interperter and made her way up through the system by hard work and little help from supportive colleagues. Thus, Ms. Covington felt that politics apart, she was the most qualified for the job.

Normally, the director general of the Geneva UN office makes a recommendation and at such a high level that there is a special committee composed of under secretaries and assistant secretary generals who would make a recommendation, to the Secretary General. The current director general Vladimir Perovsky, a former deputy Foreign minister of the Soviet Union, under Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Chavarnadze had to consider some sort of a billiard move. Not only was Mr. Ulkemen working closely with him and providing satisfactory services, he also had to accommodate a request by the two other former Soviet leaders to appoint one of their assistants to the post which would be vacated by Mr. Ulkemen. That is if Mr.Ulkemen is promoted then the person the highly recommended Russian or Georgian will take over as Chief of Protocol. In preparation for the next move Mr. Petrovsky did propose Mr.Ulkemen for the post. The senior committee, however, overturned the proposal and reportedly recommended Ms. Covington, proving the point that the most effective approach for post is on the subtle inside track. Incidentally, when Secretary General Kofi Annan was lobbied on behalf of Mr. Ulkemen he wisely indicated that the matter was in the hands of the appropriate review group.