Monday, January 11, 2010

"The First Caucasian": Public Diplomacy 101. Georgian style?


I just came across a blog post shared by a friend on a story that seems to have been largely ignored in the Western media: The First Caucasian, a Georgian TV channel in Russian, with the goal of "effectively informing [the people of the Caucasus] about what is going on in Georgia and in the world." The 3 million-dollar channel, launched by Georgia's Public Broadcaster (read: "state-owned"), went on air online in the beginning of January, and is said to start broadcasting over satellite and cable within several weeks. The website is still incomplete, with dysfunctional "English" and "Blogs" sections. However, it has started posting regular news-logs, along with several programs such as "Without a Statute of Limitations" (which will "tell about the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime from the moment of occupation and the forceful Sovietization of Georgia" [translation]), or "At Mykhalych's" (a talk-show featuring prominent figures from the region discussing the "reestablishment of contacts and building of friendly relations with neighboring Caucasian as well as once-friendly republics" [Ok. Too many hints. WE GOT IT!]).

Here is the very first video - the formal intro - that was posted online [in Russian]:

Certainly, the channel has caused some outcry from Moscow, despite pledges by channel representatives, and even Saakashvili himself, to tell the truth, and the truth only.

Its brief mission statement reads [translation]: "We do not want to give assessment; we want to give facts, as well as talk about what is left out by other Russian-language channels."

The Russian attitude, nevertheless, is summed up well in the RT coverage:


(An interesting fact: the English-language Western media somehow failed to notice this development, coverage being limited to a tiny piece on RFE/RL and a Russian-only article on VOA)

There are various sides to this issue, of course:

- Saakashvili and domestic politics - Saakashvili has been criticized - at home as well as abroad - for his crackdown on opposition and for a systematic "rooting out" the of the Russian language. Recently, rumors have started going around that he might run for a third Presidential term in 2013, and obviously, the more Aces he has up his sleeve, the better. Undermining Russia's media influence (or, alternatively, pretending that there is a "pseudo-discussion" going on), pretending to satisfy the info needs of the Russian-speaking population, and appeasing NATO with its "truthful reporting," The First Caucasian might have been the best gift Saakashvili gave himself this New Year.

- Georgia vs. Russia - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, Mr. Saakashvili has been thinking - hard - as to how else to provoke Russia. He has successfully managed to do so on several occasions by now, the most prominent being the war last summer. Having a mouthpiece in Russian not only allows to undercut Russia's media influence in the region, but can also instigate a great deal of security trouble in the South of the Federation (one of the primary target areas of the channel). There are, already, several videos on the website about the Chechens as well as the Dagestanis and the Ingush, and the programs focusing on "Caucasian identity" certainly carry an agenda..

- Public Diplomacy? - On behalf of Georgia, as well as of the entire Caucasus region. "Georgia with Oleg Panfilov" will serve as a guide to the country, while the children can enjoy the "Fairy Tales of the Caucasus People." And well, if you ever wondered how people in the Caucausus celebrate the new year, you can tune in for some olivie or kholodets.

Certainly, this is just another drop in the ocean of the media war that is currently going on between Russia and Georgia; and at the moment it seems that the latter is getting the upper hand - at least, in its immediate region - in terms of innovative approaches. There is no doubt that hard power will carry the day, if it comes to it, but Russia does need to come up with something better than RT's Peter Lavelle singing its praise, or Medvedev joining facebook. Of course, there's always the option of dismissing The First Caucasian as a "mouthpiece of terrorists" and propaganda... but that will, most certainly, be an overstatement. Again.

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