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Irina Bokova: Extremists want to force Nazi way of thinking upon us

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23.05.2016

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Who will be in charge of the main peacekeeping tool on the planet after the powers of the incumbent UN Secretary General expire? This question is being asked more and more often around the world. Alexander Zvyagintsev, vice president of the International Prosecutors’ Association, met with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who has been nominated as a candidate for the eminent post. Ms Bokova kindly agreed to give an interview for Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

Q.: Ms Director-General, you are an extraordinary politician and a brilliant diplomat. You are in charge of UNESCO, one of the world’s most respected organizations, and the right hand of the UN Secretary General in the area of culture. It is no wonder that you are being considered as a candidate for UN Secretary General. Are you ready to become the first woman to hold this post?

A.: A friend of mine once said, “UNESCO is the best school for the UN Secretary General.” My candidacy for the UN Secretary General was proposed by the Bulgarian government. I thought a lot about it, about whether I would be up to this huge challenge. After all, current developments in the world call for difficult, sometimes even tough decisions. But I strongly believe that military measures alone will not resolve the world’s biggest problems. I’m talking about terrorism, extremism, destruction of cultural values, the serious humanitarian crisis the world is going through. In fact, I believe, the world is now witnessing a fight, if not a war, for the minds of people, first of all, young people. This is why we need to dedicate as much effort as we can to education and upbringing, to building societies that would teach the young to think critically and not to succumb to extremism. I believe, the United Nations should focus more on soft power, and this is something UNESCO has been practicing.

Q.: UNESCO was set up on 16 November 1945, 4 days before the start of the Trial of Major War Criminals in the conquered Nuremberg. The trial heard accounts of the monstrous crimes of the Nazi, including in the area of cultural values, something that you and UNESCO have been protecting so fervently. In the occupied regions of the Soviet Union, the Nazi plundered 427 museums, numerous churches and libraries. The fate of many stolen masterpieces, including the famous Amber Chamber, is still unknown. Do you believe the Nuremberg process is a historical atavism? Or is it a moral and political beacon lighting the humankind’s path and protecting it against ruin?

A.: It definitely is a beacon. The humankind has no right to forget the lessons of the Nuremberg trials!

Q.: Judging from your statements, UNESCO will try to save priceless cultural monuments ruined by terrorists and religious extremists, including Palmyra in Syria. Palmyra has a special meaning as a cultural monument for me. I went there twice and was lucky to meet the head of the excavations. How does UNESCO think of the actions of the present-day Nazi?

A.: The great Jawaharlal Nehru once called UNESCO the “conscience of the humankind.” Those who established the United Nations and UNESCO understood the powerful role of culture and identity and, of course, took into account the tragedy of World War II, during which both people and culture were destroyed. We can see this clearly in the materials from the Nuremberg trials. Fifteen years ago, when the Taliban destroyed the beautiful Buddha faces in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, we thought something like this was not going to happen again, because it was past all belief and comprehension. Now it is as if we woke up with a start to see militant terrorism once again persecuting people and culture. Extremists want to force the Nazi way of thinking upon us. And UNESCO has a huge moral responsibility to spread cultural literacy.

Q.: How do you assess Russia’s contribution to UNESCO’s activities?

A.: Russia has been very actively involved in our activities. Your country has 56 academic departments of UNESCO, more than any other country in the world. I have attended conferences of these departments twice, the last time was in St Petersburg, when we had a meeting of the UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board, of which UNESCO is in charge. In 2012, in St Petersburg, we celebrated an anniversary of the World Heritage Convention chaired by Russia’s permanent representative to UNESCO Eleonora Mitrofanova. It was a really big celebration. I remember Petergof and the evening we spent there. Everything was so beautiful and inspiring.

Q.: You are one of the world’s most influential women, alongside Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth II. Don’t you think that the time of men is fading away and the world is on the brink of matriarchy?

A.: I don’t think that matriarchy is coming. But I agree that the 20th century established a new system of values, and the role of women in society has been revised. People came to understand that women may take part in political life, they can be scientists, researchers, engineers and astronauts. Unfortunately, some countries allowed women to vote only after World War II. This is indeed a new phenomenon. I believe that women’s equality is good for men, because it makes society more stable.

Q.: You received a brilliant education, having graduated from one of the Soviet Union’s best universities – the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and then from Harvard. You are fluently talking Russian to me. I was told you could easily switch to English, French of Spanish. Is it true that, due to your extraordinary abilities, you were once given the hard but honorable task of drafting Bulgaria’s new Constitution?

A.: I am very proud of the fact that several years ago the Moscow Institute of International Relations invited me to deliver a lecture and awarded me the title of honorable doctor along with some truly outstanding people. It was like going back to your alma mater and getting new recognition.

As to the Constitution, I was discharging my civil duty. It was a romantic era of Bulgarian democracy, when enthusiasm ran high and there was no shortage of ideas. At the time, we truly believed that we were doing something new and good for Bulgarian people.

Q.: And were you directly involved in drafting the Constitution?

A.: Yes, there is my signature under it.

Q.: What do you think needs to be done to prevent a third world war?

A.: The world is becoming globalized. Borders are becoming ever more notional and transparent. Time has come to create a new thinking, a new global pact of tolerance and mutual understanding. Technology is far ahead, but our thinking is lagging behind: we are still looking for ways to reach out to each other.

Q.: You are an honorable doctor of 33 universities and academies in the world, including three Russian ones. But you are also an honorable student of Poggio Imperiale in Italy. What does this unusual title mean? Why were you awarded it?

A.: I feel humble about honorable title because I am not an academic. I view these titles as recognition of UNESCO’s role. As to Poggio Imperiale, there was an episode, when UNESCO organized a conference on culture and development together with Italy and Florence. During the visit, I came to Poggio Imperiale, a cultural monument with long and powerful traditions, including education for girls. It was also the first place in the world to abolish capital punishment. The invitation to Poggio Imperiale came from students, hence the title. We had a very nice discussion and a lunch. I have very fond memories about that visit.

Q.: Queen Elizabeth II is probably the only one who can compete with you for the number of orders from various countries given for your hard selfless work in the name of peace and for the number of awards from different public institutions from all over the world. Does any of these awards carry any special memories?

A.: Competing with the British Queen? God forbid! I care very much about the Stara Planina order from my home country, Bulgaria. I received it on my 60th birthday. I also treasure the French Order of the Legion of Honor. I have been living in France for 11 years, since it is the home country of UNESCO. And I was very excited to be awarded the Order of the Legion of Honor of Mali. It was due to the work UNESCO did to restore Malian mausoleums destroyed by extremists. I went to Timbuktu two times and I consider the imam of the main Timbuktu mosque a close friend. They declared me an honorable citizen of Timbuktu. I first went there three years ago, with French President Francois Hollande, just 10 days after extremists had been driven out of Timbuktu. Timbuktu is not just a monument included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list. It is something more. It is a magic, a symbol of Arabic and African culture. All the wisdom was contained in manuscripts that were burned by extremists. I cannot tell you how shaken I was by this barbarity.

Q.: A couple of personal questions, if I may. You have made a meteoric career. And our readers would like to know more about you. Could you reveal the secret and tell us about the lucky man who won the heart of such a beautiful woman?

A.: May I relate this to my husband? When the UNESCO Director-General was being elected, he told me, “You know, I really want you to win so much.” But then, some time after I won, he said, “I am no longer sure I want you to be Director-General. There is so much work, and you are busy all the time.” Once we attended a dinner with my colleagues, and my husband told them, “You should have asked my permission before electing her.” But I’m joking, of course.

Q.: What does your husband do?

A.: He works in the banking sector.

Q.: You have two adult children. Where do they live? Do they have families?

A.: They are so grown up I don’t even remember how old they are. Just joking! They have their families. They live and work in America. I have five wonderful grandchildren, three girls and two boys.

Q.: What is your attitude towards traditional family values?

A.: It depends on what you mean by “traditional family values.” Each society has written and unwritten rules: what is good and what is bad, to be honest, to be dishonest. These values are instilled in people from a very young age. And family plays a very important part in this process. This, of course, in no way means that traditional values prescribe women to stay at home and take care of children instead of working.

Q.: Does your extremely tight schedule leave you time for relaxation, hobbies and family?

A.: I am very happy in this respect, because I have everything. I have a family, I have children and grandchildren, and I also have an interesting job. Of course, it is hard to do it all. But the children are grown up and no longer require my care. You probably know that for any woman, children hold a special place: if they are fine, then everything else seems to be fine.

Q.: I hear you are a long-time jazz lover. Is it true that it was you who initiated introduction of the International Jazz Day, which we have been celebrating on April 30th for four years already?

A.: Yes, I love jazz, and I also love classical music. Our initiative to celebrate the International Jazz Day was supported by many countries, including Russia. We meant jazz not just as a music, but as something more meaningful. After all, jazz was born on the crossroads of cultures. Very often, when I go to Africa and listen to African music, I say, “Yes, this is jazz. This is where jazz has truly come from.” Besides, jazz is a symbol of struggle for civil rights. You can hear it everywhere in the world and it will always have some national peculiarities, which makes jazz a truly universal language.

I remember how we finished the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UNESCO National Commission in Moscow with a jazz concert. It was magnificent!