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Hunt for new NATO chief begins

Brussels — NATO’s search for a new secretary general began in earnest Thursday, after Bulgaria officially entered a candidate. Alliance diplomats, however, said they were surprised by the way Sofia’s candidate entered the race.

In an official statement, the Bulgarian government publicly endorsed former Foreign Minister Solomon Passy as Sofia’s candidate for the top civilian post at NATO.

The announcement "breaks with the tradition of discretion that usually surrounds the nomination process," one diplomat said, on condition of anonymity, describing the move as "quite unusual."

"This does not correspond to tradition, where the capitals are sounded out" about who might be available from among NATO’s 26 member nations, said another official.

NATO’s current top civilian official, Dutch diplomat Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, took up office in 2004 and is scheduled to step down in May. His successor is likely to be named at the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit, which takes place from April 3 to 4.

Scheffer has repeatedly declined to talk about who might take his place.

The process of choosing a NATO secretary general is informal and not always conducted the same way. Diplomats say many candidates who make their intentions public too soon usually fall by the wayside.

Secretaries general traditionally do not come from the United States as Washington has a permanent hold on the post of top military commander. Countries like the Netherlands and Italy have routinely filled the post.

NATO has two official languages, English and French, and the ability to speak French is considered an important credential.

Passy, 42, is the first officially declared contender.

He served as Bulgarian foreign minister between 2001 and 2005, overseeing the country’s EU and NATO accession talks, holding the rotating chair of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2004.

NATO officials have said privately that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen would be a favorite were he to run.

Other possible candidates include Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Stoere, Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra and Canadian Defense Minister Peter Mackay.

Former Slovenian Premier Janez Jansa could also be an outsider.

Debate this time around has been held up, as nations awaited the swearing in of President Barack Obama of the United States — the alliance’s most powerful, influential and biggest budget-contributing member.

"There is a certain relationship with the American political calendar,” a third diplomat said. “There was no reason to start talking about anything before then."