PARIS — She's already the first female and eastern European to head UNESCO. Now Irina Bokova is a contender become the first female and eastern European United Nations secretary-general.
Bokova, the 62-year-old Bulgarian chief of the U.N. cultural agency, has been nominated by the Bulgarian government to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as U.N. secretary-general, after his second mandate expires in 2016.
Though she has not declared she is going for the job, Bokova is certainly not putting rumors at rest. She has recently waded into geopolitics, visiting Iraqi conflict zones and preparing to mediate in the Syrian conflict. Now, for the first time, she has said in an Associated Press interview that Ban's successor must be female.
"It's time for a woman to become secretary-general. Definitely," Bokova told The AP from UNESCO's Paris headquarters, her eyes lighting up.
Bokova has a strong track record of fighting for women's equality — and argues that equality drive should extend to the U.N. itself.
"I think it's an understanding by governments and NGO's" to have a woman U.N. chief, she said, falling short of revealing who she thinks that woman should be. "I don't see any obstacle."
There certainly is momentum for naming the first female secretary-general in the U.N.'s nearly 70-year history. In November, groups including Amnesty International and Global Policy Forum wrote to all U.N. member states to call for a fairer, more transparent selection process, stressing that "to date, no woman has ever held the post or been seriously considered for it."
There is also the question of which region will be chosen. Though the U.N. Charter says nothing about regional selection of the secretary-general, there's been a tradition of rotating regions after the first two chiefs were both from western Europe. The third was Asian, followed by a west European, a Latin American, two Africans, and an Asian. By this pattern, Europe should be in line to choose the next secretary-general. And eastern Europe has never held the U.N.'s top job.
That's why some believe Bokova, who ticks both boxes, would have more than a fighting chance of becoming the ninth secretary-general come 2016. Eastern Europe is lobbying very hard with other candidates. They include two women: Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite and Bulgarian European commissioner Kristalina Georgieva. Among the eastern European men in contention are former Slovenian president Danilo Turk and Slovakia's Jan Kubis, currently the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.
Another contender who has been mentioned is New Zealand's former prime minister Helen Clark, now the head of the U.N. Development Program.
"It's two years away, but it's not too early to talk candidates as a lot of well-informed speculation is already going on," said Edward Mortimer, who was former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan's speechwriter.
A candidate must not only have broad backing from the 193 U.N. member states, but he or she must be acceptable to the five council members with veto power: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. If the candidate is indeed east European, she or he must be acceptable especially to Russia, and also its close council ally, China.
That also may give Bokova an advantage. She studied in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian. And this year, she made the Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, the UNESCO special envoy for the advancement of girls' and women's education. Her husband, President Xi Jinping, became the first Chinese head of state to visit the agency's Paris headquarters. Bokova was also Washington's choice for the UNESCO post, over Egypt's Farouk Hosni in 2009.
"If the Americans and Russians like her and she's a woman and an Eastern European, well that's ticking important boxes," said Mortimer. "She's got quite good chances."
Bokovo said "it's a big honor" that the Bulgarian government nominated her. But she stresses that she is "focused so much on UNESCO" right now that she has little time for anything else.
Nevertheless, she's been acting more and more like a political leader in recent months.
In November, she flew to Iraq to visit internal displacement camps for Sunni and Shia Muslims who have fled the Islamic State terrorist group. She has been negotiating with Interpol on trafficking from conflict zones. And she has pressured the International Criminal Court to pursue war crimes charges against extremists in Mali for destruction of cultural sites.
Her latest project is getting experts from both sides of the Syrian conflict to talks on common ground in protecting Syrian archaeological sites.
Bokova's record is far from trouble-free.
She was in charge when a majority of UNESCO member states voted to recognize Palestine a state in 2011. It was financially calamitous for UNESCO, triggering the withdrawal of American funds — which accounted for nearly a quarter of its yearly budget.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from New York