Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Jihadists of the World Unite", and Russia's Potential PD

Before I get to my post, I wanted, firstly, to express my condolences to the families and friends of all those 38 Muscovites who died in yesterday's bombings. Tuesday is a day of mourning in Russia, but I believe many more around the world will be joining the Russians in remembering the dead.

I heard of the news at around 1 a.m. from... TWITTER. Yes. Networks. We have been talking about them since my very first day in the International Communication program: they are widely seen as the appropriate framework, the solution to, but also the root cause of many of the problems facing the world. I'll dwell on the latter part of it for now, in the context of yesterday's events in Moscow.

Although there were no official claims of responsibility, terrorist cells from the Caucasus were clearly identified as those to blame for the attacks. Fair enough. Given the history and the information that the Russian security forces managed to get, they had every reason to make this claim. After all, these are "separatist Islamic extremists," "terrorists," fighting to establish their their own "Islamic Caliphate" in the Northern Caucasus: part of the global Islamic extremist network. At least according to the official Russian perspective.

And yet, it is a widely accepted fact that "terrorism" is a very relative term, which lies is in the eye of the beholder, especially when there is international politics involved. Seems like the case with Russia and the Northern Caucasus has been a "victim" (for the lack of a better word) of this relativism: the U.S. State Department still does not include any of the Northern Caucasus groupings/organizations in its Foreign Terrorist Groups (which is often the ultimate international "terrorist" guide), while the CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post can cover the bombings as terror acts without referring to those who carried them out as terrorists [the preferred word is rebel: I'm grateful, at least, they were not presented as "freedom fighters"].

There has been much said about Putin's heavy-handed approach to the problems in Northern Caucasus - the ongoing struggle in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia - and certainly, many accusations in regard to prominent cases, such as that of Politkovskaya, that were in one way or another related to the plight of the people in that region. These talks have made it big in Europe and the United States. But no, I won't be going into the reasons behind this, now; nor do I want to evaluate them.

What I wanted to point out, however, was the public diplomacy challenge that Russia faces - especially regarding Western audiences - precisely because Western (and particularly, American) politicians, civil society representatives, the media, and even the movies are constantly painting a brutal image of Russia, of the Russian people, and especially, of the Russian leaders. For most part, those are incomplete, if not false. More importantly, however, is that the way Russia is always portrayed somehow makes it a "special" case among the "terrorism-stricken" countries, so much that in a Q&A/analysis program by CBS News (the full transcript is available here) there was a very serious question coming from Washington, D.C. (!!!): "This seems unusual for it to happen in Russia. Usually these suicide bombers are in the Middle East. Have the Chechens engaged in this type of terrorism before?" [Seriously?!]

Catching the moment, Russia has done well, at least in this regard, in trying to frame this as a "shared challenge" - very much alive and kicking, and much more visible - that can bring Russia closer to the West. In a speech, Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear that Russia sees this attack in a more "global" light, referring to the "no-man's land" between Pakistan and Afghanistan and stating: "We know that many terrorist attacks — not only in Afghanistan, but in other countries too — are plotted in that area... Sometimes, the trail leads to the Caucasus." Hence: a good illustration to the Western public - which, apparently, easily forgets - that Russia has to deal with terrorism, too, and, unlike the Western countries, that terrorism is at its very doorstep, sometimes managing to get in. So, facing a "global hostile network", certainly necessitates a truly "global" network response.

Secondly, although it is a very sad occasion, the truth is that such tragic events are very emotive, and result in a lot of sympathy from foreign publics: dozens of countries from all over the world sent their condolences to Russia throughout the day. And, at least for now, there can be no "international backlash" when Medvedev and Putin refer to those who carried out the attacks as "beasts," and talk of "finding and destroying" their collaborators. Even if they are talking about Chechnya.

And lastly, I wanted to touch upon Russia Today, Russia's official mouthpiece abroad. Although I very much agree with Laura's assessment of its programming, I believe RT should be given credit for the great job they have been doing throughout the entire day. Even Peter Lavelle, as could be seen in yesterday's Cross Talk [video above], was open to some kind of a rare, uncensored, and uninterrupted discussion of the matter [everything is relative, remember?].

What is more, RT has indeed been the major source of basic information and footage for most of the American outlets that ran the story. For a host of reasons, major networks such as CNN, or even the FoxNews had to rely on RT.

Certainly, one might argue that framing and presentation would matter much more in persuasion. However, given the nature of the event, it couldn't not have been sympathetic...

...unless, of course, it involves some ever-present conspiracies. To those inclined to believe that, I would just suggest reading Sergey Minaev's Media Sapiens: fiction, but very telling.

To wrap up, although this is a very sad event that will, most probably, have wide-reaching repercussions not just for the "terrorists" in the Northern Caucasus, but for many around Russia and abroad, it also seems to be (as sad as it may sound) a good opportunity to enhance Russian public diplomacy. Finally, Western leaders and publics are reminded of the existence of terrorism in Russia as well, they are reminded that Russians are humane and vulnerable just as they are, and Russia's own [could I say, official?] footage and some of its own coverage get air time in prominent American media.

Now, time to wait for the aftershocks...

[UPDATE] Just read a piece on Valdai Club about commonalities between the US and Russia, especially in light of the START agreement. Take a look.


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