Russia’s U.N. power play

A revitalized Russia is flexing its muscles at the United Nations. In addition to periodically blocking Western initiatives by threatening to use its veto in the Security Council, Moscow appears to be working through a proxy to prevent Lithuania from holding the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly.

The presidency is largely ceremonial but bestows international prestige on its holder, and more responsibility has been vested in the position in recent years. Duties involve chairing the annual gathering of world leaders in New York each September and other prominent U.N. events.

Traditionally, the presidency rotates every 12 months among the five regional groups of U.N. member states. The 67th session of the General Assembly is to be chaired by a representative of the Eastern European Group of countries. Lithuania applied for the post in 2004 and remained the sole candidate for seven years. Early in 2012, however, Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, announced that he would run — a move immediately backed by Russia. The full 193-member assembly is expected to vote in June.

It is extremely rare for the full General Assembly to vote directly on this position. Such an election is likely to heighten divisions among U.N. member states, weakening the future president, and most U.N. members prefer to follow the usual regional rotation. Some have called for the matter to be resolved within the Eastern European Group. But Belgrade and Moscow are unlikely to back down, as they are maneuvering to achieve specific political objectives.

Moscow is determined to undermine the solidarity among its former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, in whatever forum in which they play a leading role. These countries no longer take instructions from Moscow. So Russia has bestowed its diplomatic backing on Serbia to weaken the EEG members’ ability to resolve the issue on their own and to prevent Lithuania from enhancing its international standing.

Russia wants to humiliate Lithuania over a statement it found embarrassing at a May 2010 U.N. session commemorating the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. Lithuania’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dalius Cekuolis, remarked that in contrast to what a large part of Europe experienced, the end of the war did not bring freedom to Lithuania but annexation by another totalitarian power, the Soviet Union.

Cekuolis’s reference to Russian occupation — and he was being diplomatic — reportedly sparked outrage in the Kremlin. The regime of newly inaugurated (again) Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent the past decade trying to disguise the fact that the Soviet Union was Nazi Germany’s collaborator and supplier of resources during two crucial years at the start of World War II, when the Third Reich overran Europe and launched the Holocaust. Stalin’s regime was a willing accomplice of Hitler then, seeing him as the major tool for the destruction of Western capitalism. Putin seeks to promote Russia’s dubiously glorious history to restore its position as a global power. Efforts to silence Lithuania are part of a broader strategy to discredit Moscow’s former dominions.

Meanwhile, by raising its own profile in the United Nations, the Serbian government hopes to minimize further recognition of the statehood of Kosovo, its former province, and to gain reciprocal diplomatic favors from Moscow over the coming year.

The irony is that Serbia’s foreign minister is benefiting from Russia’s backing against Serbia’s European partners at a time when his country is striving to move closer to the European Union. The results of Serbia’s May 6 general elections suggest widespread public support for E.U. membership. Yet if Serbia’s aspirations for E.U. accession are damaged by the U.N. dispute, this will also serve Moscow’s ambitions in aiming to divide Europe.

Jeremic has lost a great deal of credibility in his government over the past year because of setbacks to Serbia’s Kosovo policy. Ninety members of the U.N. General Assembly have recognized Kosovo as a new state despite Jeremic’s globe-trotting in an effort to delegitimize Kosovo. Many European officials dislike his arrogance. And Jeremic’s heavy-handed approach includes threatening to retaliate against Lithuania via diplomatic avenues if its refuses to withdraw its bid for the General Assembly presidency. Lithuanian officials have accused Belgrade of preparing a campaign to block Lithuania’s bid for a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council starting in 2014.

Much more is at stake here than a symbolic diplomatic post. The tug of war over the General Assembly presidency illustrates the escalating campaign a resurgent Russia is waging against former satellites that are now an integral part of the European Union and NATO and dependable allies of the United States.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior associate in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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