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Several high-profile candidates for the post of UNESCO director-general have emerged at the last minute as the deadline for nominations expired on May 31 (see Who will be the next head of UNESCO?).

Austria's Benita Ferrero-Waldner, 60, the European Union commissioner for foreign affairs and a former Austrian foreign minister is a notable entrant. Another is UNESCO's current assistant director-general for Africa, the poet Nouréini Tidjani-Serpos, 63. He was reportedly nominated by his government after an internal diplomatic tussle with Benin's ambassador to UNESCO who had also hoped to be nominated. Tidjani-Serpos is the second African candidate to be nominated after Sospeter Muhungo of Tanzania.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko has also been nominated. But diplomats in Paris said that despite considerable experience in foreign affairs it is unlikely that Yakovenko or Ferrero-Waldner would be able to amass enough votes to push the frontrunner, Egypt's Farouk Hosni, to the sidelines. Hosni, who claims the support of the Arab League and African Union, is embroiled in a war of words over allegedly anti-Jewish comments made last year.

Since UNESCO's inception five of its directors-general have been from Europe, and African and Asian countries have said privately that they would not back another European candidate. Diplomats said the United States was also reportedly reluctant to back a European when it was seeking to increase its own profile in the UN agency. 

Russia no longer has the strong support from developing countries that it did a decade ago. But diplomats said Russia's strong interest in basic sciences had the potential to benefit UNESCO's science programmes. Moscow has been lobbying for energy research to be given a higher profile within the UN agency.

Diplomats have said that UNESCO must strengthen energy research to support the climate change agenda. But this may not be enough to garner votes for a Russian candidate. And many believe Moscow's geopolitical stance on energy resources could politicise the sector.

UNESCO has said it will release the list of nominees this week and the first round of elections for the post is scheduled to take place in September.