Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Khodorkovsky vs. Kremlin

Despite all the Christmas-related chaos of the past week, I've been trying to keep up - at least, somewhat - with the news, and the one issue that I keep stumbling upon is the Khodorkovsky trial. I just spent more than an hour reading and watching the coverage by various "Western" media, in the hope of formulating some sort of a response or coherent position on the issue. But then, I decided I should just highlight the information battle aspect of this whole issue, which in itself is the story here : Russia's public diplomacy vs. Khodorkosvky's personal PR (and, most certainly, political ambitions).

This is how most of the coverage is framed in the West:

Another piece by EuroNews is even more telling, describing the story as "Kafka-esque" and having "played out with all the drama of a Cold War thriller." (No comment. Seriously...)

Well, I can't really blame the "Western" media, since the Russian authorities are, themselves, responsible for being unable to provide an adequate response given this public diplomacy "crisis". Interestingly enough, as I was working on my research on Russian PD this past semester, the issues of corruption and human rights kept coming up as Russia's most vulnerable Achilles' Heel (there are many more, it's just that these are issues that are constantly on the table) in terms of its perceived image abroad. Not that they didn't know. And now, watching this issue unfold, and the constant allusion to "Russia's totalitarian past", I am having hard time even trying to identify the actual party to blame for bringing up Cold War parallels.

Please note, here I am not referring to the actual trial process within Russia (my familiarity with the details of the case, as well as the specifics of Russia's legal system are far too insufficient for making any fully informed judgments), but rather to the way its portrayal is mismanaged by the Russian authorities. One of the fundamental principles of cross-cultural communication, and public diplomacy in particular, is listening in order to be able to formulate and frame the desired message in a culturally applicable and resonant way. Another basic principle (though often too easily dismissed/forgotten by most international actors) is "public diplomacy by deed", demonstrating that it's not just talk, but also involves real actions and responsibilities.

Khodorkovsky in 1992. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

The Kremlin failed in both of these cases. Knowing, very well, how much this "corruption-and-human-rights" discourse matters for the Western audience (public and political, alike) and having the President himself make these issues as priority objectives to be dealt with, the authorities still decided to go with the trials for the second time. Seemingly, there was also very little effort to effectively put out sufficient information to represent the prosecutors' viewpoint. I don't even want to begin talking about Putin's comments - a show of personal arrogance, nothing more - while he could have just been more diplomatic under the circumstances (he should really start learning from Medvedev!). What is more, the special police have been detaining protesters in broad daylight, and more importantly, in front of the international media, which, given the above-mentioned references to Kafka and the "intelligentsia", provide perfect grounds for non-stated allusions to events such as the Prague Spring.

The problem is, it's not Prague (neither is it "spring," for that matter). And most certainly, Khodorkovsky, who is being portrayed as a saint, currently repenting his past vices, should be viewed in a more realistic light, too. Consider this excerpt from a New York Times editorial:
Mr. Khodorkovsky is no paragon of virtue. He made his fortune through political connections and suspect deals in the early days of Russian capitalism. Later though, as the leader of the private oil conglomerate Yukos, he began to understand that transparency was good for business. He also became an advocate of political reform — and a bankroller of reform causes and candidates — thereby drawing Mr. Putin’s enmity.
(In other words, he had a sudden and unexpected epiphany.)

Obviously, the argument on this side is much better framed (and delivered!) by his supporters, and most prominently, by his son. Two days ago, I happened to be watching CNN as it showed the following:

Perfect English. Handsome young man. Speaking from New York. (More than half of the audience already bought it. Guaranteed!)

Emotive. Very culturally appropriate, and most certainly, politically resonant. Oh, and this side does have money - more money willing to spend on the issue than Kremlin seems to be. At the moment, at least. And what does Kremlin do? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends out a spokesman to read out a statement - in the freezing cold - which later gets narrowed down to something along the lines of "Russia tells the West to mind its own business." To provide some context, they put out a small report on Russia Today TV, which, although provides an outlet for the official perspective, lacks audience and credibility, both so vital in this age.

Seems like Kremlin is set to lose this PR battle, but only to a small extent: the issue will remain a stain on Russian-American relations, for example, and yet Washington is reluctant to be making strong statements on the matter (so far, at least). And rightly so. Russia is big country (i.e. democracy, Western-style, might actually tear it apart), the relationship is at a "crossroads" of some sorts, and a lot of thinking should be done before it is all risked for someone like Khodorkovsky. Especially in this case, since there can be no guarantee that he will bring anything better for Russia (or for the West, for that matter) if he (or his supported candidates) actually get to power (remember the joke!). I would truly want to believe that decision-makers abroad understand that.

Instead, the focus - both in Russia and elsewhere - should be on the actual fairness of the system. I am very glad to see BBC's collection of views on the issue from Russians themselves. A quick look shows that there seems to be a general agreement on Khodorkovsky's dark past. Yet, as one reader put it:
It is not a bad thing that Khodorkovsky is in jail. But it is a bad thing that others like him are not in jail.

Might be difficult to change, but that is the problem. Obviously, the Western media beg to differ. After all, that won't sell.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chaotic Anniversary

Yup, Global Chaos deserves a birthday cake! Friday marked the first year since I started my very own blog, so I decided to write up a quick overview of major developments/highlights of the past 12 months.

I started blogging as a part of coursework for the foundation class in my program, International Communication. The original group blog - SIS 640 Communiacs - soon became an outlet not just for posting the weekly reading responses, but also for various thoughts and observations related to International Communication and international affairs. I guess we all owe special thanks to Dr. Craig Hayden for the inspiration!

Upon the end of the semester I decided to keep writing. After all, I had finally found an area I was genuinely interested in and decided to stick to (anyone who knows me personally will attest to the fact that I'm having great difficulty in choosing specializations - not the best thing, perhaps...) - public diplomacy and strategic communication. I had tried blogging before - twice - but, for some reason, I never managed to keep it up. This time I promised to myself to keep working on it. I incorporated some older posts, including those from the class blog, but made sure to add new ones at least once a week.

Chinese for "Chaos". The definitions of the word range from "unformed matter" or "a jumble", to "condition or place of great disorder or confusion". Whatever the actual meaning, I believe it very well represents our world (at least the one that I've seen so far). Hence, the name of the blog.

I started with some shots from the first DC Snowpocalypse, and writing soon became an obsession. I guess I was also strongly encouraged by the fact that other bloggers and several major blog digests started picking up and linking to some of my posts, increasing the number of visitors. Here, very special thanks go to Dr. John Brown and Global Voices Online, which, I am sure, not only helped attract more readers (and contributors!) to Global Chaos, but also increase their diversity. (OK, I'll thank Dorsey, Williams and Stone, too, for creating something called Twitter.)

As I looked at the map of visitors today, I should say I was pleasantly surprised:

121 countries! (Global chaos, indeed...) Of course, America is the top "source" of visitors, which says a lot about the level of interest in the general subjects/themes I discuss (as well as my actual location and language). Among other top visiting countries are Armenia, UK, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Russia (surprise, surprise!), France and Turkey. Some of the more surprising visits came from places like Mauritius, Laos, Belize, or Tanzania, to name but a few. Why surprising? I never touch upon subjects that would be directly relevant to those countries. Don't you just love globalization and the Internet?!

Seeing the most-read posts also provides useful feedback in terms of pointing out subjects of greatest interest. The most popular post by far has been the one on the Genocide Resolution and Armenia's PD failure that I wrote last March (heh, wonder why..?!). It is followed by "The Illusion of Knowledge", "SALT and the Story Behind It", and "Russian 101: R-Rated PD". This indicates (besides proving - yet again - that sex and controversy sell) that there is interest in a more honest and open discussion, meaning that Global Chaos should, indeed, remain an "UNdiplomatic blog".

RussiaToday TV (RT) is probably my favorite subject of discussion, after public diplomacy itself. I think it's obvious why.

The fifth most-read post was "New Media and Conflict Resolution: Cyber-Utopia?", which later provided the opportunity to join an exciting transnational project that aims to bring the people of the Caucasus together (special thanks to Onnik Krikorian for the invitation and encouragement!). Certainly, being Armenian, I cannot stay away from subjects that involve Turkey and Azerbaijan.

It was also great seeing comments, engaging in discussions, and getting "unofficial" feedback in person. I would only ask for more!

Now, as I hope to start serious work on my capstone project on Russian PD, my posts might keep focusing mostly on issues that relate to Russia and/or the region. However, as mentioned earlier, there are so many interesting things happening around (and so much chaos!), that discussing other subjects and issues would be simply unavoidable.

So, the major New Year's resolutions for 2011 for Global Chaos will be:

- Get readers from Greenland, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan (though, I'm afraid, they might be blocking Blogspot), and the Gambia (why not?!). Help, anyone?

- Write more often. I do enjoy it.

Any comments, suggestions, and contributions are very welcome, as always (exception: those that exhibit nationalism/xenophobia/intolerance in any shape or form). And no, there will be no ads (that's a promise)!

Lastly, of course, thank you for reading. Hope to see you back! :-)


Monday, December 20, 2010

"Bhutto": another pretense of "democracy"

This weekend I got a chance to watch Bhutto, a documentary on Pakistan's former Prime Minister and perhaps one of the world's most prominent female politicians (released earlier this year, but opened in Washington last Friday).

Well made (loved the graphics!). Intriguing. Compelling, indeed. But also, very misleading.

Savior?! In fact, as soon as the movie was over, a friend who watched it with me asked: "So, when is she going to be resurrected?" I couldn't agree with him more. The movie portrayed Benazir as nothing short of a messiah: she was the only hope for democracy in Pakistan.

Indeed, her achievements - especially given the circumstances - were more than just impressive. And yet, it is easy to forget the bigger picture and focus on the positive points, re-framing and often de-contextualizing them. Interestingly enough, for example, while the documentary goes into detail about the imprisonment of Bhutto's husband - Ali Zardari - and the corruption charges against him, there is not even a mention of the corruption cases involving her, personally. How convenient, even if those were just a "smear campaign"...?

The documentary features an impressive list of prominent individuals, ranging from Peter Galbraith, Condoleezza Rice, and Arianna Huffington, to Tariq Ali and even Pervez Musharraf himself. Yet, the story line seems to be mostly dominated by Mark Siegel, who identifies himself as Benazir's colleague (co-authored Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West with her) and friend. He also just happens to be among the producers of the documentary [makes one think...].

Yes, perhaps Bhutto's achievements - in the 1980s - can be seen as unparalleled. Maybe even unprecedented. However, she was not a saint, and the basis of her political power and legitimacy - from the early days of her prominence - was very questionable. Certainly, I'm not an expert on Pakistan, and yet, I would very much recommend going back to several pieces published by Tariq Ali in late 2007, where he explored the grounds of her "reconciliation" with then President Musharraf, and later, the "grotesque feudal charade" that followed her murder.

Now, the Bhutto "legacy for struggle" is transferred to her son Bilawal, who impatiently awaits his return home upon the completion of his studies at Oxford. Or, maybe not? In any case, he is the anointed leader-to-be of Bhuttos' Party (calling it "Pakistan People's Party" - i.e. PPP - is an overstatement), while his father Asif is "temporarily filling in" as President of the country. Sounds like a true democracy!

No doubt, very few major events in the region - particularly, following 9/11 - can happen without the approval (or, at least, knowledge) of the U.S. The fact that nominally "democratic" elections finally took place in 2008 and that Musharraf was made to resign indicates a major fallout between him and his former patrons. Thus, given what followed, "democracy" can be seen as more of a smokescreen, rather than reality in Pakistan. Wishful thinking, in best case. In that sense, the documentary is made by Americans for Americans (OK, perhaps some other "wishful Western" audiences, too).

Yet, despite the seemingly exaggerated progress in Afghanistan, the situation in bordering Pakistan is still very much a concern for NATO. As noted by the 2010 White House review of the Af-Pak strategy released last week:
"Although the global affiliates and allies of al-Qa’ida also threaten the U.S. homeland and interests, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11."

The strategy needs strong action from Islamabad, but the notorious ISI doesn't seem to be helping; on the contrary, they stand accused of supporting the Taliban. Obviously, the governing coalition, and most importantly, the PPP, have not succeeded in making sufficient progress in that direction.

ENTER: Musharraf. Re-enter, rather. He announced the establishment of a new party in October this year, and apparently, is considering to return from exile and perhaps even running for the presidency. The ideology of the party? Errr... does it matter?

When asked by BBC what the party will be standing for, the response was: "Standing for myself." There, he also took a very appeasing line:
"A time has come in Pakistan when we need to introduce a new political culture, a culture which can take Pakistan forward on a democratic path, on a correct democratic path, not on an artificial, make-believe democratic path."

Funnily enough, in another interview just a couple of weeks later, he noted that "there is a sense of despondency spreading in Pakistan," and that a "dysfunctional" government and the threat of terrorism are causing a crisis in the country.When asked who would be the savior, he responded:
"The army can do it. [...] As long as the military exists and is strong, nothing will happen to Pakistan."

Later, he also appeared on Al Jazeera's Frost Over the World:

Obviously, nothing new.

So much for true democratization and commitment to change. All the "back channel" as well as public diplomacy efforts of NATO, and especially those of the U.S., do not seem to be yielding substantial results in terms of reducing security concerns, anyway. Is "Democracy" - Pakistan-style - the only viable answer, again?

[Back to my favorite Soviet joke...!]


Friday, December 17, 2010

Ukraine: the more things change, the more they stay ...

The Ukrainian Rada witnessed another violent brawl yesterday. The problem? Corruption inquiry against Tymoshenko. Surely, a very, very debatable issue.

While such fights in parliaments have become more or less a norm in our troubled post-Soviet region, the Ukraine's case is special. For example, a brawl earlier this year featured eggs, tomatoes and umbrellas. At least this time they limited themselves to chairs and fists.

So much for progress and democracy... and concern for their international image.


Putin talks to the nation

Funny. While Medvedev is talking to the Federal Assembly, Putin is conversing directly with the public. 4 hours 29 minutes. His 2011 televised call-in Q&A session apparently broke all records, at least in Russia.

Questions ranged from the recent racist/ethnic riots, to requests for wedding congratulations. You can read the transcript of the entire session (in Russian) here.

Well done? Certainly, a very good PR move. At home. Abroad, it all seems to have become a matter of ridicule.

Image courtesy of AFP/New York Times.

A quick look at the major English-language media covering Russia reveal the overall perception:

I feel like The Christian Science Monitor provided the only decent and more or less balanced report (from the ones I saw).

New York Times:
In a marathon question-and-answer session that went on for four hours and 29 minutes, Mr. Putin offered a bravura defense of the central control that is a hallmark of his leadership.
The marathon event underlined Mr. Putin’s outsize role in Russia, nearly three years after he stepped down from the presidency. His successor and protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, has articulated a tentative reform agenda well received in the West...
But Mr. Medvedev seems to be shrinking back from bold pronouncements lately, while Mr. Putin is sending a clear message that he is not only running the country, but also operating it manually.
The Washington Post:
"Those people sacrificed their lives to serve the Motherland, and there happened to be an animal who betrayed them," Putin said. "How will he live with it all his life, how will he look his children in the eye? Swine!"
After the 10 agents returned home in early July following a spy swap, Putin met with them and led them in singing patriotic songs.
Putin, a KGB veteran who led the main Russian spy agency before becoming president in 2000, insisted in a recent CNN interview that the agents had caused no damage to the United States.
The article then goes on to talk about Litvinenko and his alleged murder by the Kremlin. Don't you just love the framing?
In another article, BBC also focused on his comments regarding the riots and the spies, and his "defending of the police". Interestingly enough, however, BBC also ran a separate story about his comments regarding Khodorkovsky's case, whose trial is another major point of contention between Russia and the West.

[It seems, however, that most of this "contention" is coming from Europe. In a commentary (translated from French) published by the Guardian, Khodorkovsky is presented as the savior of Russian democracy (and suggested as "Hero of the Year"?!):
This man, formerly the richest man in his country, was accused of tax fraud in 2003 and has been languishing in a Siberian prison for seven years. His crime? To have wanted for his country a true democracy, as well as genuine respect for human rights. Real justice. And to realise this dream, this ideal, he intended to use his immense wealth to support political parties in opposition, which was not a welcome move at the highest level: a man who wants to spread hope has no place in this world. A man with a sincere vision for his country and his countrymen must be destroyed immediately.

Not that Russia is a democratic state, or one with decent human rights record. However, reading such comments sadly reminds me of that old Soviet joke about the potential success of "revolutions": "What if we win again?" Very sad.]

The Guardian had somewhat substantive coverage, too: 
Vladimir Putin grew his cult of personality to new heights during a marathon question-and-answer session today, sending a clear signal to Russia's liberals that they are not welcome in a country where security services rule supreme.
Putin often appeared at ease. One woman wrote to say she wanted justice. Putin read the question and laughed, saying, "we all want justice", before moving on to the next question.

Wow. But well, RussiaToday was there to save the day.

I think even Pravda would've done a better job. Though the last remark is indeed priceless:

Q: Who rules the country while you and the President of Russia are asleep? 
A: We take turns sleeping. Everything is under control. No doubt about that.

Bad public diplomacy. But, who cares, when domestic ratings matter more?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

@MedvedevRussia, Are You Listening? A Story of 6 Months on Twitter

This post originally appeared on RuNet Echo, on Global Voices Online.

It all started with a tweet.

"Hello everyone! I'm on Twitter, and this is my first tweet," wrote Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to Twitter headquarters in Silicon Valley on June 23, 2010. The Russian president created two official Twitter accounts - one in Russian and one in English - in a publicity tour that made headlines around the world. With 2010 coming to a close, we take a look back on some of the highlights of the president's first six months on Twitter.

It was a brilliant public relations play that complemented the President's other efforts to capture opportunities offered by social networking and new media. Within minutes, Medvedev's Twitter account attracted some 1000+ followers. People on RuNet (the Russian internet) responded with intense interest and a flurry of comments and reactions. In the six months that followed, Medvedev successfully managed to engage 147,295 followers on his Russian Twitter account by posting photos, links to news, and even some personal commentary.

View of San Francisco from the President's hotel room. Shared on Twitpic on June 23, 2010, by Dmitry Medvedev

The presidential Twitpic profile deserves special mention as Medvedev often demonstrates his tech-savviness by sharing pictures he takes with his iPhone. Apple should almost be paying him for the publicity.

Medvedev's fondness of Apple products is obvious, pictured here with an iPad at G8 Summit in Canada in June, 2010

It was also a great public diplomacy effort, as Medvedev's English-language Twitter account - aimed at foreign audiences - attracted 61,451 followers and provided for quite some discussions over the coming months in the global public sphere that is Twitter. As noted in June by a popular Russian television host and blogger, Tina Kandelaki:
"If he continues putting up such photos, like the ones after his Twitter registration, the Russian authorities will have a real chance of becoming authorities of which their people are proud. [...] If he continues being as active as he was at the beginning, the emergence of "New" Russia will become apparent not only in Russia, but also in the West."

The President vs. The Kremlin

The fact that the President was initially using @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E (E for English) as his personal Twitter profiles raised some controversy on the blurring of the lines between Medvedev and the official Kremlin. So on November 19, 2010 two new Twitter profiles were created, also called @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E while the original ones were renamed @MedvedevRussia and @MedvedevRussiaE.

According to RIA Novosti, the president is tweeting himself on the new account. Apparently, he wished to enjoy more informal communication with his followers. Meanwhile, @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E represent "official Kremlin news," as stated in the new profile descriptions. Ironically, @KremlinRussia now only has 10,731 followers and @KremlinRussia_E only 2,193 because the followers remained on the old accounts.

Another rival in this space is the mock Kremlin tweeter @KermlinRussia (note the spelling error) who has close to 52,500 followers and ranks 4th among the most followed Russian tweeters (funnily enough, according to the latest stats from Twirus, @MedvedevRussia is the top "RU Popular Tweep", as of December 14). The mock tweeter, identifies himself as the "Perzident" of made-up country "Roissya".

Unfortunately, no translation can capture the brilliant play of words in the profile description. Intentional misspellings that would otherwise mean "Russia, Forward!" and "Official Twitter account of the Russian President" evoke negative associations. For instance, "Russia, Forward!" is a nod to a notorious article by Medvedev in September 2009 calling for modernization and innovation in Russia. Yet, the way it is misspelled (Роисся вперде), it sounds more like "Roissya is screwed." When Medvedev's Twitter account was renamed, @KermlinRussia did not pass on the opportunity to comment in a series of tweets on the same day:
"Good bye to all who are now with @MedvedevRussia. Hello to all who would never confuse our profiles in the first place."

And later:
"Best business practices: Just a while ago 122,000 followers were transferred from an official state account to a private one. Doesn't this remind you of anything?"

@KermlinRussia is just one among the increasingly prolific mock tweeters in the Russian Tweet-o-sphere, which features mock feeds @PremierRussia (fake Putin) and @Kremlins_wife, but also by the great Russian poet @Alex_Pushkin (1799-1837) and @NikolayII, the last Russian Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918). (My personal favorite, though, is the "Kremlin worm" - @KremlinCherv - who gained prominence after an embarrassing incident in October).

While the Twitter humor is prolific, the satire has also affected wider public political discourse. The misspelled phrase Роисся вперде ("Roissya is screwed") has become the title of an upcoming book by Oleg Kashin, a reporter for Kommersant who was badly beaten in November. The book, which is expected to be released at the end of December, is a fictional story about the land of "Roissya" and is an anti-Utopian account of a society with modernization as its ideology. You can find excerpts from the book in Russian here.

@MedvedevRussia, are you listening?

Early in his tweeting days, President Medvedev was mostly self-referential. Although he established a presence on Twitter, Medvedev (and his PR team) did not seem to grasp the two-way nature of social networking. On the contrary, the presidential Twitpic profile, for instance, was heavily moderated within a day of being launched. After a few controversial remarks and questions, all the comments beneath the photos suddenly disappeared. As Gregory Asmolov remarked on Global Voices, "The era of the Russian unmoderated online democracy lasted less than 24 hours."

Burger diplomacy. Medvedev has lunch with Obama on June 24, 2010 at Ray's Hell Burger. Courtesy of the Kremlin.

Things improved a bit later in fall, when the president (or at least the people behind his profile) apparently noticed the "@Mentions" and "Reply" buttons on Twitter, and started being more responsive. On September 14, Medvedev celebrated his 45th birthday, and congratulations via Twitter poured in by the hundreds. The president duly acknowledged all those who wrote in, and thanked them for their wishes.

Several more interactions followed that made it to domestic and foreign news reports, including one on October 2, which asked whether @KremlinRussia was "real", and received a personal response from the President. Some were birthday-related, while others - more recently - focused on the Belarusian elections. On November 24, venting his frustration over various issues in the country, @garipov_radik tweeted:
"@MedvedevRussia Dm. Anatolievich! Are you reading our tweets at all? Or are we talking to the hand, here? We are, after all, discussing subjects that are important to us. Respond now."

And the response came:
"@garipov_radik I am reading. Thanks for all the suggestions to all of you who write to @MedvedevRussia. I am thinking of using some of these ideas in my address to the Fed. Assembly."

Did he? Here's a tweet from @garipov_radik from November 30, the day of the annual speech at the Russian Federal Assembly:
"@MedvedevRussia Watched the address with the whole family. Were happy to hear my suggestion about the FREE provision of land to families with (many) children. Great!"

I was unable to find any other tweets to suggest that more ideas from Twitter have been adopted in this speech or others. However, the example above does show that beyond gaining purely technical skills, Medvedev is also improving his communication strategy as a whole.

On November 30,  an Armenian news website picked up a story on how a woman with an Armenian-sounding surname had received a response from the Russian president on Twittter.

@inna_smbatyan tweeted:
"Dreamt of @MedvedevRussia today. were having dinner in some dark castle. were talking about Twitter. yeah right..."

Medvedev responded: 
@inna_smbatyan I did not have dinner at all yesterday. Was preparing the address :)

The president's new responsiveness to citizens shows the potential for major transformation in communication for both public relations and public diplomacy purposes. After all, if Holywood actor Ashton Kutcher can, why can't he? (Twitter has been embraced by many politicians and officials in Russia, as well as around the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are 62 international leaders officially on Twitter, perhaps most notorious among them Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.)

Medvedev, who now has four Twitter accounts, is obviously good with iPhone and Twitpic sharing, and even learned how to use the "Reply" button. A good start for the first six months on Twitter? Perhaps. We will have to wait to see whether any substantive action follows his virtual words. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.

On recent violent clashes in central Moscow, where thousands of nationalist soccer hooligans shouted racist epithets, Medvedev tweeted warnings to the perpetrators:
"И последнее - на сегодня. По Манежной. В стране и в Москве - все под контролем. Со всеми, кто гадил, разберемся. Со всеми. Не сомневайтесь."

["And the latest - today. Re: the events at Manezh Square. Everything is under control in the country and in Moscow. We will deal with all those who messed things up. All of them. Don't doubt it."]

He also retweeted two posts from the official @KremlinRussia feed with links to official statements from Kremlin, highlighting the need for discipline and calling for the punishment of  those who incited "criminal acts". The racist responses on Twitter have been fierce.

Will each of the thousands of perpetrators really be prosecuted? Yet, on Twitter, Medvedev seems to appear more like any other citizen, voicing frustration at something he perhaps has limited power to change.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Al Jazeera: One on One with Zbigniew Brzezinski

A great interview with one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. If only more of this made it to the "general public discourse"...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Russia's Got Talent

Putin is back. Not that he was ever gone... but he's posing for cameras and targeting global headlines, again. There were no special sports or martial arts moves involved, no black gear or bikes, and not even yellow cars...

This time, it's music. Apparently, the great Prime Minister of all Russians has been working on his vocal and piano, as well as his English language skills. (In his recent interview with Larry King he mentioned learning English songs with his English-language tutor...!)

Putin played "From Where the Motherland Begins". Photo courtesy of the Online Portal of the Government of Russian Federation.

He got on stage during a charity concert to support the fight against children's oncological and ophthalmological diseases in Russia. He played the Soviet song "From Where the Motherland Begins" - already famously a part of his repertoire - and later even joined the jazz band to sing Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill." The Prime Minister performed the latter to "a standing ovation". The concert, which took place in St. Petersburg's Ice Palace, was also attended by several international celebrities, Sharon Stone, Monica Bellucci, and Gerard Depardieu among others.

Certainly, the desire to raise funds for a great cause is applaudable. Yet, this obvious PR event was also very much an attempt at public diplomacy - personality-based public diplomacy. RussiaToday TV, too, did not miss the opportunity to highlight yet another one of Putin's great talents, of course.

And here is most of the performance itself. Enjoy!

Aw. Isn't he cute?

Some of the international coverage is noteworthy, too. The framing and phrasing is priceless.

Daily Mail Online:
Putin, described as ‘alpha-dog’ in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, is reported to have sung patriotic songs to a group of Russian agents after they were expelled from America in July. But before Friday’s show in St Petersburg, his musical prowess had not been noted.
At the show, Putin also tried to play a Soviet-era song called From Where The Motherland Begins but hit a wrong key and stopped.

Russia's Vladimir Putin, showing his passion for music extends from favourites of spies and cosmonauts to Armstrong, played the grand piano for a room full of filmstars in a concert lasting into the wee hours of Saturday.
He then took the microphone and roused the audience from their seats with Louis Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill" sung in broken English with some piano accompaniment by the jazz band.

And certainly, can't help but point out a recent post in Foreign Policy's Passport, featuring hilarious commentary along with Kremlin-released pictures from an evening Putin and Medvedev spent together in Sochi last week: "Chillaxin' in Sochi with Vova and Dima."

Celeb-style public diplomacy is obviously better than no public diplomacy. The problem, however, is with the reception, and the complete ignorance of the actual reactions and stereotype-perpetuation such attempts are having abroad, especially in the West. Unless, of course, that's the intent to begin with, in which case I cannot but express pity for this "strategy."

UPDATE [12.12.2010]: Just came across this other video from Euronews. Gives a better idea about the audience and other participants, I think...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Article on Turkey's Public Diplomacy Published

My article "Turkish Public Diplomacy: The Genocide Resolution Challenge" was recently published in The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs (free access). I've got to admit - it wasn't all that easy to write. However, I believe academic inquiry should go beyond national - and more importantly, nationalist - interests. In a sense, it was a challenge I set for myself. So no, I have no qualms about it.

I also wanted to thank the organizers of the Conference on Turkish and Eurasian Affairs at St. Mary's College in MD: it was a very informative and engaging discussion (and a very pretty campus!), which I enjoyed very much. Great to see Eurasia and corresponding academic interest in the region coming back from obscurity!

Would appreciate feedback and suggestions.
Also, a request: nationalist and inappropriate comments will be moderated. Thank you.

Abstract: The Armenian Genocide is one of Turkey’s major foreign policy issues and, as such, is among the primary concerns for its public diplomacy efforts, as it strives to counter the information campaigns carried out by Diasporan Armenian communities around the world. In March 2010, the Foreign Affairs Committee at the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a very narrow margin, the non-binding Resolution 252, recognizing the events of the early 20th century as Genocide. The issue threatened to deal a blow to the special relationship between Turkey and the United States, as well as to their strategic partnership. Somehow late to respond, the Turkish government gradually mobilized all its diplomatic capabilities – domestic and Diasporan – in early March, to counter the Resolution at the Committee level, galvanize support from the American public, and ensure the  backing of the U.S. administration to, at least, try and stop the bill from getting to a general Congressional vote. This paper adopts Zaharna’s Information-Relational framework of public diplomacy to analyze and assess these immediate attempts by the Turkish side, and to suggest recommendations for enhancing their relational public diplomacy strategies, especially in terms of the Genocide issue in the U.S.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Adopt an International Student for Holidays

Who said it's bad to be away from "home" for the holidays? It can always be a good opportunity to learn something new about the tradition/culture/history of a "new" place, especially when in good company!

Not that I'd ever celebrate Thanksgiving if I were not in the U.S., but as the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." It's certainly great to receive many invitations for a "warm and yummy evening," but I could not refuse the suggestion to drive almost half-way through the country to... Arkansas, of all places!

My dear friend could not have been a better citizen diplomat...!

So, we went. Here are some noteworthy impressions... from the perspective of a public diplomacy freak.

Flags. Lots of them. Everywhere. Yeah, I never really, truly appreciated flags. But well, they are good symbols. They represent, and tell a story. Here's what I learned about the Arkansas flag:

- AR is the only place in North America where diamonds have been found and mined. Hence, the diamond shape.
- The flag got the 25 white stars, because AR was the 25th state to join the Union. 
- The top blue star in the center represents Arkansas' membership in the Confederate States during the Civil War.
- The other three blue stars represent Spain, France and the U.S.: all the countries that have ruled the land of Arkansas.
(No one's mentioning the the Native Americans, of course...)

Yes. This is the AR State Capitol. In Little Rock. Modeled after the National Capitol, built more than half a century after the one in D.C., with pretty impressive bronze doors, and... very welcoming. Certainly, the need for security cannot be comparable to Washington; and yet, I cannot but mention the welcoming smile of the guard who let us in, despite the fact that it was Thanksgiving day.

Inside the Capitol. Christmas time is here. Yay!

Heh, but of course... We're in Clinton-land!

Fayettville. Formerly Washington. Although the night was frosty, the sunset was very warm.

Thanksgiving! Yeah, missed the Turkey shot. Obviously, we were hungry. These deserve special mention, though. All home made!

The World Peace Prayer Fountain Sculpture in central Fayettville, featuring "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in more than 100 languages. A strong pacifist message!
Couldn't find Armenian. But saw Georgian!

Arguably, America's greatest Public Diplomat! Represented Arkansas for 30 years.

A cute statue in front of the Heifer International Project HQ, Little Rock. Great global outreach, and an integral part of overall public diplomacy. World Avenue in the background.

Hah! Beat that in terms of winning over an Armenian! 6 foreign flags, the second among them Armenian (third from left). They knew I was coming...!

Clinton-land II: The Presidential Library. Unfortunately, it was closed when we were around. Pretty neat-looking building, though. Definitely on the "to visit" list, if ever back in town.

Sneak-peek at the Old State House Museum. Current Madame Secretary's dress from... should be around 1980 some time. Red. Great choice!

Clinton's running shoes: perhaps the most weird item I've seen at a museum exhibit so far. Still, the rumor has it, many decisions are often debated and made while jogging. If only shoes could speak...

..... This was before they came up with the lethal injection. Eerie!

And certainly, the greatest and easiest way of cross-cultural bonding: FOOD. I've got to admit that despite my meat aversion, this beef bbq sandwich will be remembered for years to come. Yeah. We can overcome stereotypes!

To my dear friend: for the thousandth time, thank you for the great week!

And... have any of you invited an international student for Christmas, yet? :)


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Medvedev's Annual Address

Today President Medvedev delivered his key annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. The speech is more than an hour long, and in between my slightly prolonged Thanksgiving weekend, final papers and projects, and the application deadlines, unfortunately I cannot get into a detailed discussion of his major points.

However, I wanted to point out that although he focused primarily on domestic issues, he also made several major points concerning foreign policy and diplomacy in particular (those come toward the end). Of course, the highlight has been his "threat of a new Arms Race" comment, and yet he talked about modernization, also touching upon the need to enhance Russia's Economic Diplomacy and improve the ties with the governments as well as the publics of Russia's Eastern neighbors. Russia's public diplomacy is turning to the East, now?

Here's his full address:


Funny to watch Putin's expression from time to time. Priceless!

And certainly, the full translation provided by Russia Today TV:

And for those who can't listen through it all, here's a quick overview:

Geez, Hibbert really does need to work on her accent...


Friday, November 19, 2010

Speaking of "framing" III - Outrageous!

Aha. As promised, here's the last part from Russia Today TV's "investigative report" on the super-secret "democracy promotion around the world" conspiracy devised by the American government.

The report:

The interview:

I don't think there is much more to add to what I already put out here, in the previous two posts.

Just two thoughts:

- USAID and NED... Really?! They "repeatedly refused" interview requests and declined to comment on these stories? Might be unpleasant and uncomfortable, and yet there is a case to be made. Otherwise, RT - and not only - frames the issue the way they want to. Unfortunately, the altruistic and disinterested mission of "democracy promotion" is not self-evident to everyone around the world, and therefore, a strong argument is indispensable. What were their communication representatives thinking? I'm afraid they both lost this public diplomacy challenge "test case" for the U.S. in this instance...

- Russia Today: please, please, stop being so obviously conspiratorial and bluntly insensitive. Seriously now. Who is the target audience? I'm sure the executive team there - even if not the reporters themselves - has heard of notions such as propaganda or selective perception. If not, I suggest you read up on it. Unless you stop undermining your own credibility in the eyes of your own intended audience, you will never get rid of the "propagandist" label. Sorry to be the one breaking the news to you.

Speaking of "framing" II

Remember my post from two days ago on Russia Today's counter-PD campaign about America's "democracy promotion"? As promised, here are the next "episodes" of the series. Please note the open reference to Ukraine (vs. the NPR piece from Wednesday).

It's all about interests, perspectives, and framing. Since the major issue of concern (the "right" frame of choice) for the American public at the moment is the economic well-being of the country, here's a look at democracy-building from the financial perspective:

And then, here is a point often made by Kremlin:

Of course, the size (and the characteristics) of the RT audience - especially within the U.S. - is very questionable. And yet, they are out there raising what seem to be pretty legitimate questions. Most importantly, they're not the only ones to do so. After all, it's all about perspective, framing, and perception.

So how does the U.S. overcome what is sure to be selective perception of such issues in many parts of the world? How do USAID and NED (and many others) respond to such arguments? Discarding them as unreasonable or ignoring them altogether will only undermine American credibility abroad. This is a major public diplomacy challenge, especially in this case, where framing and preconceptions matter and the American formulation is far from being the only one "out there".

More to come - just as promised.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Speaking of "framing"...

Unfortunately I don't have the time to blog extensively. Again. Just wanted to highlight two news stories I came across today: both indicative of "framing wars"; both, obvious "counter-public diplomacy" efforts by each of the sides. Interestingly enough, both of these pieces provide context for each other... and perhaps both should be viewed with the "Bout extradition issue" in mind.

The first one is from NPR's Morning Edition, and discusses the state of "democracy" in Ukraine: "Ukraine's President Blamed For Derailing Democracy." You can listen to the podcast on their webpage. Here are some excerpts from the transcript:


It seemed that a former Soviet Republic had chosen its own future when the Orange Revolution swept through Ukraine six years ago. U.S. and European leaders applauded when Ukrainians poured into the streets demanded democracy. Now, as NPR's David Greene reports, that nation's story has swung back the other way.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

DAVID GREENE: These were thought to be the sounds of a country writing the final chapter of a painful history. From Soviet rule to open democracy and integration with Europe. The Orange Revolution brought leaders who spoke of freedom and hope. That storyline has been derailed.

This past February, Ukrainians elected a president named Viktor Yanukovich. Join NATO? No way, he said. The Orange Revolution - he called that a failure. And these days, journalists complain of pressure to drop stories the government doesn't like. Yanukovich has also brought Ukraine into a new friendship with its eastern neighbor, Russia. Where's that revolutionary spirit?

Mr. RICHARD WIKE (Pew Research Center): You've seen a waning in confidence in democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region.

GREENE: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. And just before Yanukovich was elected, Wike polled people in former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries. The results were dramatic. In places like Poland and former East Germany, people celebrated democracy and capitalism - not in Ukraine, where only one in 10 said political changes in the post-Soviet era have benefited ordinary people. Some of Wike's questions had also been asked just after the 1991 Soviet collapse, such as: What do you prefer, a strong leader or a democratic system?

Mr. WIKE: And the number of people saying a strong leader has gone up notably in Ukraine over the last two decades. So people still want democratic freedoms and institutions. But I think they've lost some of their confidence about the ability of democracy to solve their problems.

GREENE: If the 2004 Orange Revolution was supposed to begin the era of democracy, the political chaos and the economic woes that followed only gave Ukrainians fresh doubts about a more open political system.


Gilenko is 53 years old, a grizzled unemployed factory worker. He's no fan of his president. Still, he said, give Yanukovich some time, to see if deeper economic ties with Russia might start helping ordinary people. Gilenko remembers those cold nights in Kiev, calling out for democracy.

Mr. GILENKO: (Through Translator) People were united for the first time, and probably the last time. I took part in that revolution, and it let us down. People expected after the Orange Revolution, that milk and honey would flow over the land.

GREENE: The drive for democracy, overwhelmed by disappointment with the most recent experiment. It's not unlike what you hear from Russians, who recall chaos under Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet collapse. Many Russians say they never want to try that again.


Ms. SARAMAKA: (Through Translator) People today are just indifferent towards those in power. There's so much disappointment here. And nobody is sure where we're headed. But I believe one of those moments will come again.

GREENE: If another democratic revolution comes, those leading it will have their chance to win over a skeptical audience."

And as if in response, today evening Russia Today TV started what it called a series of reports on American policy of "democracy promotion" around the world:

And an interview that followed...:

Very funny to watch. But also worrisome. Long live the Cold War...?!


Cartoons' PD Potential: Can Cheburashka Help?

Over the past year, I've had many discussions and debates over the "function" of pop culture in public diplomacy, and whether it can provide a viable solution to overcoming the massive volume of noise in the current communication and technological environment. Various theoretical frameworks suggest that it can. Actual observations suggest it works in some cases (after all, some audiences can surely be turned off by some of the more sexually or violently explicit, or extremely Western-centric "pop cultural" products coming from abroad).

But then, just like any other "tool" in cultural diplomacy, cartoons (which clearly fall into the "pop" category) can establish the grounds for goodwill. They can even help overcome long-held preconceptions and stereotypes about the other, thus creating the space for further openness to meaningful communication and information processing. Many communication and cognitive processing theories would support this argument, suggesting that "narrative transportation" and cognitive focus on the humorous/engaging aspect of the information can bring down the resistance to communication that would normally be induced by previous perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs.

Certainly, a good lesson to learn for Russians. I - just like everyone else in the post-Soviet/Socialist region - grew up watching the Soviet/Russian cartoons, most of which were far from having anything to do with ideological indoctrination: insofar as "indoctrination" is different from "socialization," that is. (Yet, "Tom and Jerry," "Looney Toons," and even "Popeye The Sailor" were among my favorites, too; though, I've got to admit, there might have been a degree of parental influence involved here.)

And although it might be unrealistic to "ask" Cheburashka, Postman Pechkin, or Karlson (who lived on the roof) to perform Russian public diplomacy (with all their time- and culturally-specific references), modern and well-produced animations with typical Russian or generally neutral themes could certainly help enhance it. Not only can they tell a typical Russian folk/fairy tale (thus conveying a lot about Russian culture, traditions, and history), but they can also deal with generally interesting and exciting subjects, thus appealing to young and adult audiences alike.

Here is a great example of a recent cartoon about the Russian legendary knight Alyosha Popovich (2004) [unfortunately, I was unable to find any English translations/subtitles].

Nevertheless, seems like the government has started to notice the potential: the Ministry of Culture has apparently been a significant supporter of and contributor to the creation of a recent cartoon "Belka and Strelka: The Star Dogs" (2009) about the pioneer dogs that made it to space and back (alive) in 1960. The cartoon was even released in 3D (in 2010) and the fact that the official website has an English section (plus many English-dubbed trailers available online) suggests that there was a special effort made to reach out to foreign audiences, too.

That is true of several "private" productions, as well. Yet, at the current rate, they obviously can't beat the American animated blockbusters. Not in marketing at least. Perhaps the great number of the Russian Cultural Centers abroad could be more helpful in facilitating various local screenings or - even better - organize local "cinema releases", even if in smaller, non-mainstream theaters?

After all, these cartoons are so cute (!). They speak to the younger audiences, who are much less susceptible to the pervasive attitudes or stereotypes about Russia (within their respective societies). And most importantly: they don't feature bears, fur hats, vodka, or Siberian winters...


P.S. - Completely forgot to share "Well, You Just Wait!" (really, can't get a better translation for Nu Pogodi!): probably my favorite. Enjoy!