Monday, October 25, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project?

Awesome, AWESOME conference coming up at SIS!!! Make sure you come, if in town. Please RSVP to: :)

U. S. public diplomacy historically has been preoccupied with diverse forms of message delivery: “telling America’s story” to the world. But to what extent does the work of diplomacy include listening?

“Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project?” will bring together key stakeholders in the future of cultural diplomacy, including members of the policy community, diplomacy professionals, and academic researchers, to explore the challenges to, and potential for, listening across different approaches to cultural diplomacy.

This one-day conference will be held on November 8, 2010, 12:00-4:30pm on the campus of American University. (For directions:

For further information please contact the conference organizers ( or consult our website:

We hope to see you there!

Help us spread the word: invite friends and colleagues!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Russia Today: Iran's Soft Power

My highlight of the day: Lavelle discussing Iran's Soft Power with Marandi, Fisk, and Rhode.

Interesting to hear and certainly funny to watch.

Yet, the program makes a good point: Iran itself is very often demonized in the West, and the pervasive wishful thinking seems only to contribute to the underestimation of the extent of its influence and leverage (in the region in particular). The sanctions and the isolation might be working from the Western point of view. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that this perspective is not the only one (at least, not anymore), and there are groups and individuals who - for various reasons and purposes - seem to be leaning toward Iran.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon earlier this month highlighted this fact very well. It was a very smart move, as Hizballah indeed put on a great show, with the Iranian prez starring in the lead. And despite all the pressure from the West and efforts to undermine his government, he does deserve recognition for increasingly honing his public diplomacy skills, which, although rough at times, do address his own "constituent" audiences in the immediate region and beyond. What he still needs to learn, however, is addressing the more "hostile" public in the West, since antagonism, especially in his case, does not seem to be effective at all in the charming business.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Twitter Craze. This Time, It's a Worm…

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

...I mean, a real worm.

The fact that Russian officials had become devout fans of Twitter is not news anymore. Their enthusiasm has even been credited for the explosion of the Russian "tweet-o-sphere" over the past several months, so much so that the administration of the microblogging website has announced a plan to launch a Russian-language interface for its users.

Screenshot of the RT YouTube video showing the celeb worm, as posted by Zelenin.

Yet, it was a different matter that topped the Twitter-related news in Russia on Wednesday. Apparently, as the Kremlin was hosting an honorable guest on Tuesday evening - German President Christian Wulff - the dinner menu for the Governor of Tver region, Dmitry Zelenin, included an extra shot of protein: a live earth worm. The tweet-o-enthusiastic Governor managed to take a picture of the unwanted guest and shared it on his microblog, along with a comment which, according to RIA Novosti, read:

"Things like this happen even in Alexandrovsky Hall. Along with beef you're also served lettuce with live earthworms."

The Moscow Times pointed out that the Governor had an additional comment:
"It's an attempt of sorts to show that the salad leaves are fresh."

Kremlin was certainly not happy with these comments. Sergei Prikhodko, President Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser, told RIA Novosti that he found Zelenin's comments to be "irresponsible" and "stupid":

"Fortunately, I deal with foreign policy issues; however, I would, probably, advise my lawyer-colleagues to introduce a provision in the guidelines for the evaluation of governors' activities that would allow them to be fired 'on grounds of idiocy'."

Prikhodko also advised everyone to think twice, from now on, before inviting Zelenin over for dinner.

The photo along with the tweets have since been removed from Zelenin's feed. However, the story still managed to get several prominent mentions:

REUTERS reported on the incident, contextualizing it within the general issue of tweet-o-mania among Russian officials, as well as the convoluted relationship between the President and the regional governors in the country.

The Moscow Times picked it up, too, with a little follow-up, highlighting that Zelenin's spokeswoman declined to comment on why the Governor removed the tweets and the photo. The article also featured comments by Kremlin's head chef, who was quick to clear himself of blame. (As a side note: it is worth pointing out that the piece mentioned that Prime Minister Putin's grandfather was the personal cook to Lenin and Stalin. Just by the way!)

The most interesting mention, however, is certainly that by Russia Today TV, which not only featured two separate segments on it, but also had managed to capture the actual photo, before it was removed. Weird public diplomacy: I guess they did not consult Prikhodko before airing or publishing these.

Another interesting comment on the matter came from the mock @Kremlins_Wife user on Twitter, who wrote:

"@DZelenin brought the worm there himself and arranged a provocation. Every child knows that no worm survives within the Sadovoye Beltway."

[Sadovoe Koltso, or the Garden Ring, one of the major highways around Moscow's downtown].

And just in case you are wondering (according to RT)...
"...The fate of the worm is unknown."

UPDATE [12:50 p.m., EST]: The Kremlin worm is apparently alive and kicking, and it has come out of hiding: later on Thursday it registered an official Twitter account of its own @KremlinCherv, posting comments and asking for attention. At the time of this writing, it already has 785 followers.

The first Tweet read:
"@DZelenin Thank you, Dmitry Vadimovich. I am a star now!"

The Celeb Worm also re-shared its previously removed portrait:

Yet, the most noteworthy update so far has been:

"Brothers, eat salads. I'm the last worm of democracy!"

As for Governor Zelenin, apparently he has run into real trouble, with a full-scale investigation launched into the case. According to Russian news agencies, a preliminary examination of the photograph has revealed that it did not correspond to the location and presentation of the plate at the table. If the photo is found to be indeed fake, Mr. Zelenin can "face charges based on the existing legal code."


Monday, October 4, 2010

Medvedev: To The People of Belarus

Having a tech-savvy President seems to be proving advantageous for Russia's public diplomacy (for its effort, at the very least). Medvedev has been reaching out to the people of Russia, as well as the foreign publics, through his personal (verified!) Twitter accounts - in Russian and English - his official blogs (again, Russian and English), and the official Kremlin YouTube channel (with disabled comments section, by the way). Having combined what many in the U.S. would differentiate as public affairs and public diplomacy, Medvedev often covers overlapping subjects, especially when it comes to issues related to Russia's "near abroad".

In his latest video blog post, for example, Medvedev expressed his concern about the recent Russia-bashing rhetoric in Belarus (with the elections coming up next year), and criticized President Lukashenko for attempting to brand Russia as the new "outside enemy" of the Belarusian people. Here is the video segment in Russian, followed by excerpts from the English translation of the transcript.

"I want to address both the Russian and Belarusian people. After all, we are all citizens of the Union State.

It is my deep conviction that our country has always treated and will continue to treat the Belarusian people as our closest neighbour. We are united by centuries-old history, shared culture, common joys and common sorrows. We will always remember that our nations - and I always want to say  “our single nation” - have suffered huge losses during the Great Patriotic War. Together we survived terrible hardships of the collectivisation, famine and repressions.

Now Russia and Belarus are partners in the Union State. Both of our countries are also actively involved in the creation of the Customs Union, in the development of the EurAsEC, CSTO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. [...] we have always helped the people of Belarus. In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, the volumes of this support, whatever they say, have been huge. Only this year our help to Belarus in the form of favourable oil supply terms amounted to almost two billion dollars. There are comparable subsidies in the supply of Russian gas to Belarus. We do all this because we firmly believe that our nations are inextricably linked.

[...] In his comments, President Lukashenko goes far beyond not only diplomatic protocol but also basic human decency. However, this was nothing new to me.

[...] And, of course, we will bear this in mind when building relations with the current President of Belarus.

A flood of accusations and abuse has been directed against Russia and its leadership. Mr Lukashenko’s entire election campaign is based on that. [...] Of course, this is not what defines the relations between nations and individuals.

[...] I would just like to say this openly: Russia is ready to develop allied relations with Belarus. Moreover, no matter who leads Russia and Belarus, our peoples will forever be fraternal. We want our citizens not to live in fear, but in an atmosphere of freedom, democracy and justice. And we are ready to pursue this together with our Belarusian friends."

Photo courtesy of

A perfect example of truly public diplomacy: not only does Medvedev talk directly to the Belarusians, but he also states his disapproval of Lukashenko in public, for the whole world to see. Of course, the statement and the medium - by themselves - cannot provide any measure of the effectiveness of this particular message; however, the President (along with his PR/PD team) should be commended for his willingness to learn and practice PD more actively.

Related: Links to the new blog post were published on the President's official Twitter feed, as well as on that of his blog. The two consecutive tweets read:
"The senseless tension in relations with Belarus will certainly end."

"Russia has always treated  - and will keep doing so - the Belarusian nation as its closest neighbor."

In response, the mock Kremlin tweeter @KermlinRussia tweeted [in Russian]:
"Belarus' senseless independence will certainly end."

"Belarus has always been - and will be - a part of its closest neighbor. Russia."
Lukashenko's time is certainly over. Just not sure if the country is able to stand more trouble..

UPDATE [13:45]: Russia Today TV touched upon this too!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Iran in State of Soft War"

Here are some excerpts from an article in Tehran Times today:

TEHRAN - National Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei has stated that the enemy has launched an all-out soft war against Iran.
The enemy is aware of its inability to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thus it has initiated a new war on a new battlefield to interfere with Iran’s police and general public, he said during a military war game held in Tehran on Saturday.
[...] Commenting on the political and social unrest that occurred after the Iranian presidential election of 2009, he said, “The enemy had seriously counted on the soft war it started last year,” but became disappointed as their efforts proved futile.
On Saturday, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Iran is in “a state of soft war.” This war is cultural and political in nature and is more dangerous than a military confrontation, he added.

Photo courtesy of

The story was also featured on PressTV:
"Presently we are engaged in an all-out war in both soft and hard fronts with the world's arrogant powers, and the main approach of our sworn enemies, the US and Zionism, is soft confrontation with Iran," Mohseni-Ejei said on Saturday.

"This does not mean that the enemy has ceased its hard [war] measures," Mohseni-Ejei said, adding that in the current situation the enemy supports and trains terrorists, villains and bombers to create insecurity in Iran.

Wonder if there will be a response from the US DoS...

Good new ol' times!

I had seen this story on ORT (1TV) the previous day, but I didn't really think it would make it to Russia Today TV, too.

Well done! After all, the President is emphasizing the importance of "good relations" with Lithuanians (following all the tension with the Baltics...).

Photo from WSJ.

[Read more on Putin's very special visit to the Agricultural Expo here and here.]

And can't help but notice: sort of reminiscent of the past; perhaps even too similar? A great photo op.!

Glad there were no cows on RT, at least...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Iran's (attempted) media management?

Last week I had some thoughts on Iran's President Ahmadinejad, his visit to the U.S. (as a part of the UNGA meetings), and all the media blitz surrounding him. Al Jazeera's Listening Post dedicated their leading story this week to his visit, and I thought I'd share it here as a follow up to the posts I had before.

The program does a good job in questioning American media's approach to Ahmadinejad, and criticizing them for making him the highlight of the UNGA coverage. It also tells the story of Hossein Derakhshan, the Canadian-Iranian blogger, who was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison last week. I will get back to this point a little later.

Another very interesting Iranian-related event this week was the meeting of the Russian and Iranian bloggers at the Iranian embassy in Moscow. Promoting citizen/digital diplomacy and "civic activism"? Great. One thing both sides seem to have missed, however, is that for such initiatives to work they have to be truly civic, or at the very least, appear to be such. Holding "blogger" meetings at countries' official representations certainly does not give one the impression of independent and genuine dialogue. This is especially the case when one of the "bloggers" is the Iranian Ambassador himself...

According to Норвежский Лесной, who participated in the meeting, the conversation focused on:
"The modern history of Iran and its extremely difficult relationship with the U.S.; its differences from other countries of the region;  Iran's life and development in isolation; myths - how Iranians see Russia and how the Russian citizens see Iran; tourism (over two thousand Russians visit Iran every year - this figure does not include Russian contractors in Iran; while about five thousand Iranians come to Russia every week - they mostly visit Moscow and St. Petersburg); sources of information about Iran; the peculiarities of photojournalists' work in the country; the Iranian Ambassador's blog in Russian; and the readiness of the embassy to assist the invited Russian bloggers in gaining a closer acquaintance with the country of Iran."

Ambassador Sajjadi's official blog was a real discovery for me. Fluent in Russian, he not only promotes all the wonders Iran's got to offer, but also puts out arguments and responses to major media issues. Here is what he had to say about Hossein Derakhshan's sentence in his latest blog post (October 2, 2010):

"Regarding the blogger who was sentenced in Iran: Islam encourages scientific discussion on religious issues, and opposes the blind following of dogma. At the same time, Islam strongly opposes insults, slander and blasphemy. People are free to doubt the existence of God or the prophetic mission of Muhammad and the Koran, and can discuss these points so as to either accept or reject them in the end. But profanity is strictly prohibited. According to the Islamic law, if someone offends Jesus or the Virgin Mary, he will be imprisoned. Hossein Derakhshan was imprisoned not for the fact that he was a blogger, but for the blasphemy and the gravely indecent remarks he had made about Islam."
It would have helped to provide at least some links to support his point...

In any case, seems like Iran is improving its skills of foreign public engagement, and Russia - being the not-so-hostile territory - is a great place for such test-runs (I'm sure the case of the Moscow Embassy is not the only one, and that there are many others out there). Then, there is also the Iranian Cultural Center in Russia, with its shiny and pretty substantive website.

Awesome public diplomacy, isn't it?