US Candidate Beats Russian in Contest to Lead Key Global Information-Communications Agency

Patrick Goodenough | September 30, 2022 | 4:18am EDT
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The next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the United States, speaks in Bucharest, Romania after her election on Thursday. (Photo by Daniel Mihailescu / AFP via Getty Images)
The next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the United States, speaks in Bucharest, Romania after her election on Thursday. (Photo by Daniel Mihailescu / AFP via Getty Images)

( – In a diplomatic setback for Moscow, an election in Europe on Thursday saw a U.S.-backed candidate decisively beat a rival nominated by Russia to head an obscure but vital U.N. agency that oversees telecommunications infrastructure around the globe.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the United States will be the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), after securing 139 votes from 172 present and voting member-states at the ITU’s plenipotentiary conference in Bucharest, Romania.

The candidate put forward by the Kremlin, Rashid Ismailov, received 25 votes in the secret ballot election.

Bogdan-Martin, who will begin her four-year term on January 1, has worked at the ITU for almost three decades, and currently heads a division responsible for policies and programs in developing countries, where almost three billion people are believed to lack reliable access to the Internet.

She will be the first woman to lead the Geneva-based agency, which was founded 157 years ago – back in the telegraph era – but was later incorporated into the U.N. system. Today its work encompasses rapidly-advancing information and communication technologies, ranging from broadband systems to video streaming to communication satellite orbits.

Bogdan-Martin will succeed a Chinese national, whose time at the helm has been sometimes controversial. Both China and Russia’s Internet policies, including restrictive state control and censorship, are deeply concerning for advocates of online freedom.

Moscow and Beijing have also worked together at the ITU to promote what they call the “internationalization of Internet governance,” a shift away to what they view as unfair dominance by the United States.

Ismailov has held senior positions in the Russian divisions of Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson, and is a former deputy minister of telecom and mass communications.

Looking ahead to the election, which took place against a backdrop of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said earlier this month that Ismailov’s election was essential if the ITU’s “politicization” was to be avoided.

“At the moment, at the suggestion of individual countries, the [ITU] is under the threat of politicization of its activities, which will have an extremely negative impact on cooperation in this area,” she told a briefing in Moscow.

The runup to the election was not without controversy. A week ago Zakharova accused the Romanian government of revoking already-issued visas to “14 members of the Russian delegation” planning to attend the three-week conference in Bucharest.

She charged that the “Russophobic” move was part of a U.S.-instigated attempt to deny Ismailov victory and “ensure the conditions for the victory of the American candidate, which will push Western installations in the ITU, to the detriment of users of the rest of the world.”

Romania’s foreign ministry rejected Moscow’s allegations, saying it had issued visas to “all 17 officials designated by the Russian Federation as members of the official delegation.”

It said the 14 individuals referred to by Zakharova, on the other hand, were in fact journalists with the Kremlin mouthpiece RT, whom Russia had improperly identified as officials with the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media.

Russia’s participation and representation at the conference was therefore “not affected in any way,” the ministry said, calling Zakharova’s allegations “completely absurd and patently unfounded.

(The U.S. has led and encouraged efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically in response to the invasion of Ukraine. In April the U.N. General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and later that month the World Tourism Organization suspended Russia, also due to the war. In both cases, Russia withdrew from the bodies on the day the votes were held.)

Welcoming the outcome of Thursday’s ITU vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it reflected broad endorsement of the U.S.-backed candidate’s “vision for universal connectivity, digital empowerment, and leadership at the ITU that is innovative, collaborative, and inclusive.”

“U.S. support for Ms. Bogdan-Martin’s campaign reflects a renewed determination by the United States to ensure that international organizations are well-run, responsive to their memberships, and accountable for their performances,” he said.

For her part, Bogdan-Martin pledged “to continue driving this institution to be innovative and increasingly relevant for our member-states, better positioning all of us to embrace the digital environment and make progress on achieving U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and connecting the unconnected.”

Bogdan-Martin, who grew up in New Jersey, told the meeting after the election she was, unsurprisingly, a fan of Bruce Springsteen. She quoted from his song “Badlands” the line, “Talk about a dream, try to make it real.”

“Universal connectivity has been a dream for far too many years,” she said. “Let’s unite, and make it real. Connect, and unite.”

See also:
An American and a Russian Vie for Leadership of Crucial UN Telecomm Agency (Sept. 19, 2022)

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