Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Armenian Genocide. Whose public diplomacy?



April 24 is the day Armenians around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Every year that day provides Armenia, and especially the Diasporan Armenians, with an opportunity to squeeze into the world headlines and flash their cause yet again. After all, the fight for recognition - which is, essentially, a major, long-term public diplomacy campaign of a nation (actual or "imagined," does not matter here) - cannot yield results unless it gets the support of the publics of its "target governments". And here, major media, domestic and international, do play an instrumental role.

This year marked the 95th Anniversary of the Genocide*, and so I was hoping to get something different in this regard: something new, that would help to make the issue stand out and be genuinely newsworthy. But nothing seemed new. What is more, Turkey appeared to be stealing the show!

See the following AlJazeera news update, for example. The story is, indeed, the leading one (at the time of writing, it is also the top story on AlJazeera's front page); and yet, after a brief introduction in Armenia, the focus shifts to the "exceptional and unprecedented" commemoration of the Genocide in Istanbul.



Earlier, as Anita McNaught was reporting live from that commemoration ceremony at the Istanbul square, she mentioned that the gathering was officially sanctioned by the authorities; while the Foreign Ministry (out of all others!!!) had made sure there is enough police to ensure the security of the Armenians and Armenian-sympathizers who had gathered there (they were being "protected" from a group of nationalists, who were holding a counter-protest).

Similar reports appeared in a number of other news organizations as well, most prominently on CNN Turk and EuroNews. A well-conceived PD move, Davutoğlu! Too bad Reuters or AFP somehow missed the pitch, and rather focused on the standard Yerevan story (which, by the way, was mass reproduced by those major news outlets that ran the story).

 Tsitsernakaberd, the Genocide Memorial, Yerevan, April 24, 2010. Photo courtesy of Armine Halajyan.

So, Turkey was making the news by showing such "unprecedented" benevolent kindness (after all, everything is relative...), while the Armenian Revolutionary Party organized its separate annual rally in Yerevan on April 23 and made sure to burn the Turkish flag for the world to see. Is that really all that we've got to offer?

To be fair, on April 22, the Armenian President announced that the Armenian side will be suspending the ratification process of the Reconciliation Protocols signed with Turkey last October. The timing of this announcement, just a couple of days before April 24, was most certainly a strategic one to stir action and attention before the date. However, it seems that Turkey came up with a better approach, ending up getting more attention for "new" good will, while the Armenians were singing the same old song and backtracking on the much-hailed progress (no matter how limited).

The Eternal Flame, in memory of all those who perished. Tsitsernakaberd, Yerevan, April 24, 2010. Photo courtesy of Armine Halajyan.

What's more, although the Armenians rejoiced in the presence of international media in the capital, for some weird reason neither CNN nor BBC ran stories on the subject on their websites (well, BBC featured a tiny "In pictures" slideshow). While, the major American sources focused on Obama's statement, and how he "refuses" to use the g-word.

There is a public diplomacy catch for Obama, too, then. Firstly, he disappointed - yet again - a certain proportion of his electorate in the U.S., who, so adamantly supported him in 2008 and supposedly believed that he would deliver on his promise. We can put a disillusioned minority of the public in Armenia (the state) in a similar category.

Annual ARF march. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

Secondly, the Turkish-Americans claimed to be upset by Mr. Obama's statement, because he was paying special attention to the issue in the first place. The case was the same with the official Turkish position. What do the Turkish people think? That will remain to be seen. However, with America's current favorability rating of 12% in Turkey, chances are, there won't be a lot of improvement. (Of course, there are many other, much more important, factors at work here. But I will not be going into them, now.)

So what's the score, in the end of the day? Armenians reinforce their "Genocide" brand, get the same old "sympathies" from the major powers (who matter) - even if not formal recognition - Turkey gets commended for its "exceptional" tolerance (kudos, AlJazeera), while Obama chooses the lesser of all the "available" evils.

Oh, and just in case you missed the other big Genocide-related news, here's a pitch: the Kardashian sisters (who, unfortunately, seem to be becoming the Armenians' best-known public diplomats. S.O.S.!!!) referred to their Armenian heritage as a source of inspiration for their new jewelry line launched on April 24. Somehow, they also managed to "spark controversy" by planning a lavish birthday party for the same day. Ingenious! And kudos to all those dedicated "reporters" who manage to keep track...


*April 24, 1915 was chosen as the date for commemoration because that was when 800 prominent Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Istanbul were rounded up and killed, in the fear that they may start an internal uprising against the already feeble Ottoman government. This became a major concern, especially in light of the advancing Allied forces from the West.

For more thoughts on the subject see "Diasporan Public Diplomacy Gone Wrong. Wake up, Armenia!"



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