Sunday, July 25, 2010

SALT and "the story" behind it

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So, I saw the "much-hyped" SALT movie on Friday. Thought I should share some thoughts and impressions.

It's a good one: entertaining (if you're a fan of Jolie's superhuman proficiency, that is) and most certainly, amusing, especially in the way that it thrusts the Cold War nostalgia at the viewer. They've got it all: "Comrades," KGB, double (and even triple) CIA agents, nukes (I bet the parallels between the surname and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks are not just coincidental), indoctrinated "Pioners", Russian fur hats, North Korea, Iran... you name it!

Image from Pynk Celebrity.

As I had mentioned before, an interesting fact is that the most recent Russian spy story was almost bound to guarantee the success of the movie, or at the very least, make it significant. After all, the key to any successful marketing strategy is relevance to the target audience, and the scandal that broke out several weeks ago could not make the movie any more relevant for the "Western" public.

The best part of this all, however, is that former CIA and Homeland Security chiefs were both recruited to market the movie. Here's a segment from the Washington Post review by Ann Hornaday:
"Even after "Salt" was green-lighted, its producers enlisted no less august a team than former Central Intelligence director R. James Woolsey and former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge to help market the movie and to pre-empt the inevitable criticism that "Salt's" plot is either hopelessly dated or risibly improbable. (The Washington endorsement suggests another mystery: How does a studio persuade the Justice Department and FBI to prolong a decade-long investigation until a few weeks before your movie comes out?)
It's true that, without current fortuitous events to back up its premise, "Salt" most likely would have been laughed out of theaters in its first five minutes, with its Russians scheming to spark World War III by giving long-dormant agents in America their cue. It would have seemed so quaint! So retro! So Boris and Natasha!
Instead, that story line gives "Salt" timely zing and arresting realism amid otherwise over-the-top -- and utterly enjoyable -- whiz-bang action."
Precisely!

I know I'm running the risk of sounding "conspiratorial", but my major concern here is the conflict of interest. It just so happens that not only former Homeland Security Chief, but even the current DHS TV crew took an immense interest in promoting the movie. Here's the promotional video for "Deep Cover: Spies in America" as posted on the Homeland Security Television's Facebook video channel:



I find it interesting that half of the promotional segment for what is, supposedly, a televised discussion of the Russian spy case, is actually the SALT movie trailer...

The program itself, which is now available online, puts less emphasis on the movie; and yet, it features the "top promoters" (as mentioned above) and provides several references to SALT, in the context of "Russian sleeper agents". (Since embedding is "disabled by request", I cannot re-post the YouTube video; but here's the link.)

I wonder if Anna Chapman received any "rewards" for property rights/character use. (Oh, by the way, if you haven't yet heard, Jolie personally invited Chapman to attend the opening of the movie with her in Moscow this weekend. Sadly enough, the invitation seems to have been declined.)

I truly admire the skill to sell!

In the Box Office, SALT has come in second (after Inception, which held strong at the first place for the second consecutive weekend), which is a good indication of high interest on this side of the Atlantic. I wonder if its success will be greater in Russia, and am very much looking forward to reading a greater number of insightful reviews from the former Soviet sphere.

As for images and stereotypes... I have touched upon it on numerous occasions before: it is funny to see so much excitement about an outdated story that's some 25 years late. And yet, this piece of "popular culture" (because that's what it is, essentially) is still a good illustration of just how easy it can be to stir the well-ingrained stereotypes and attitudes for marketing purposes (or, alternatively, how difficult it can be to let go off them), especially when it comes to Russia.

Nonetheless, Voice of America (Russian), too, caught the right moment and hosted a discussion on the movie with the participation of some of the aforementioned former officials. Kudos to SALT-ian public diplomacy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Black-clad Putin. Roaring into a bike fest."

Ran into this Reuters segment: PRICELESS.



I should say this is a clever move by Mr. Putin, be it in terms of "personal" ratings, or public diplomacy. After all, just a while ago Ukraine was one of the more "hostile" neighbor states.

Most notable lines, to highlight, are: "the bike is a symbol of freedom," and more importantly:
"Long live Russia.
"Long live Ukraine.
"Хай живе байк [Long live the bike]."
Well done, Vladimir Vladimirovich.

UPDATE [July 25, 2010]: Apparently, Russia's representative to NATO, renowned Mr. Rogozin, made an appearance at the bike fest, too. See his comments [in Russian] here.

Berlusconi and Medvedev in a coffee shop

Yeah... apparently, it's the new diplo fashion.



... and just a reminder.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thoughts on The "Other"

As appeared on The Caucasian Knot and [update:] EurasiaNet (also featured on Global Voices Online).


It’s difficult to be an Armenian. Not so much because of all the bloody history (in every sense), or the conflicts, or the never-ending migrations… The major issue for me lies in separating the fact from fiction, the real from the imaginary, the myths, the legends, and all the propaganda from the reality I live as an Armenian; especially, as an Armenian abroad.

"Caucasian barbeque" for the "Real Caucasians"

Growing up in Yerevan during the early years of “transition”, we quite literally lived through the Karabakh war. I guess I’m fortunate not to have been affected in any more direct way, but living the consequences was, I believe, more than enough to instill hostility. Hostility towards an “other” whom I never really met, but always heard so much about.

The fact that I was born into a family of Diasporan repatriates made this perspective even more twisted, since there was another “other” too, who tortured and mutilated my nation about a century ago, and who, somehow, came to blend into the current picture as well.

Then, there was the inherent and, perhaps, inevitable “otherness” that I felt myself, never being quite able to feel normal within a society which, I was told, is supposed to be mine, but which, for some reason, did not fully understand my ways, my food, or even some of my language (the confused faces of some classmates who heard me use Western Armenian words are still vivid in my mind).

Twisted, and yet very overpowering, as I wanted to be a “proper Armenian.” I had come to learn that to achieve that I would have to live up to certain expectations: dedicate my life to “The Cause” and to the struggle for an idea that was romantic and potentially explosive at the same time. I was supposed to hate, and I was supposed to fight.

I’m glad I didn’t. And I have only the “other” to thank for it.

As a freshman at college – in a country far, far away - I happened to attend an Azeri cultural evening. At a certain point, I should admit, I got confused since it was very difficult to stay aware of the fact that it was not an Armenian event: the only good reminder of that was the Azeri flag hanging on the wall.

Music? All too familiar. Traditional dress? Wait a minute, I thought that’s Armenian! Folk dance? Those are Armenian moves! Food? Since when is dolma Azeri?

"The proper barbeque"

Another conversation with an Azeri classmate revealed that he had a member of his family killed in the Karabakh war, and that just like myself, he was supposed to despise “the other”. But I, in all my adolescent naïveté, thought we were the only victims? It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I could have been an “other” too, belonging to a group that could have inflicted destruction, pain, and suffering upon someone else…

Yes, thank you, dear schoolmates, for helping me: helping me realize that I did not know you; for helping me go beyond the restrictive map and look further; for helping me shake off the straight-jacket put on me by my proper “Armenianness”; for helping me live a life not full of hate.

I believe I owe thanks to that baklavaci in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, too, who told me of his “amazing Armenian friends” back at his home village; just as I am grateful to the Turkish reporter who was all too eager to discuss the Genocide with me, sharing some ideas, and inviting me to her town.

I am not saying it’s all roses and love out there. Quite the contrary: seems like the pressure and the war rhetoric just keep increasing by the day.

Yet, we should not forget that the “average person” would not choose to go to war if he had a basic livelihood and certain achievable aspirations in life. But it’s difficult for states to ensure this basic livelihood and these aspirations – especially if we are talking about young, unstable, and insecure states.

Instead, it is much easier to apply the “nation” label (i.e. straightjacket) and manipulate the minds: the lack of a better alternative and the diverted focus of attention might, after all, fuel sufficient “courage and dedication” for a conflict…

Why not realize that over centuries – before we were even aware of our “nationhood” as such (since the latter is, quite surprisingly, a very modern concept) – we have evolved as a region, sharing land and culture? Why not admit that we are not that different, after all, and that we truly can get over the endless and pointless political debate and continue the process that was so abruptly interrupted with the creation of the mostly artificial borders?

Lena's ideal veggie plate

Why not focus all that energy and effort toward sharing, rather than dividing and alienating? Why not realize that we are human beings – first and foremost – before we are assigned a “national” label?

I feel like the naïveté is creeping back, again. But then, I see like-minded people from the region, not just abroad, but also online, and that gives me hope: hope that, perhaps, one day I can share “dolma” and “tan” (or, “ayran”) with Georgian, Azeri, and Turkish friends in Yerevan, without being frowned upon by my own “compatriots.”

(Photos by: me, in North-Eastern Armenia, off the Azeri border)

P.S. - Make sure to read the very insightful post by Scary Azeri, too. Very glad to see such dialogue in action! (Special thanks to Onnik Krikorian! :) )
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Some Sunday goodies to chew on...

This week's Listening Post did a great job - again - in covering the most recent media scandal: the firing of CNN's senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr over her Tweet re: Ayatollah Fadlallah's death. And of course, there's more "good stuff" to go with it in the episode, too.



This story was, indeed, more than just outrageous. What I find even more interesting, though, is the fact that the British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy had a somewhat similar experience - although not one that would result in her being recalled back home - which went largely unnoticed. Here's what BBC reported on the matter:


Under the title "The passing of decent men", Frances Guy wrote that: "When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person."
She also indicated she felt lucky to have met Ayatollah Fadlallah.
Her blogpost has been taken down by the Foreign Office, though it can still be read in full on Ayatollah Fadlallah's website.
Mrs Guy has now written an apology on her blog to clarify that: "I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed, in whoever's name. The British government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activities carried out by Hezbollah and I share that view."
She had not directly praised Hezbollah in the blog. As ambassador she has met political representatives of Hezbollah, with the blessing of the Foreign Office, something which had incensed Washington. The US does not differentiate between the military and political wings of Hezbollah.

This is clearly a reflection of a much bigger problem: the attempt to paint everything in black or white, and a failure to realize that circumstances can - and ofter are - much more complex.

And here's another video, from TED: a talk by Ethan Zuckerman on global online communications and the value of "xenophilia". Of course, being open and listening to not-so-comfortable ideas might sound counter-intuitive, but unless there's an effort to do so, the great potential value of online communications risks being ignored and wasted altogether.



Enjoy!

Kazakhstan - a long way to go on PD?

A couple of days ago I saw a Facebook "status" from a Kazakh friend (who's enjoying his summer vacation back at home) where he complained about the fact that Kazakhstan - the free and democratic American friend in Central Asia (no, not the one Borat was talking about) - has blocked access to certain popular web platforms, such as LiveJournal and Google's Blogger.

(Image courtesy of the Telegraph.)

Apparently, this is not news, especially in the light of Nazarbayev's near-official anointment as "Elbashi" (Nation's Leader) and the passage of the law granting him a "special" status, even after the expiration of his presidential term. (Although, after 21 years of occupying the Presidency, he doesn't seem all too eager to give it up.)

This, again, raises the question as to why, then, is Kazakhstan currently chairing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE: or alternatively, the "Organization of Seriously Concerned Europeans")? I just find it all too ironic that Kazakhstan  is going over and beyond in its attempts to prove "democratization and progress" to the world, coming up with various public diplomacy and "image-making" overtures, while not making any real attempts to improve the facts on the ground - substantially, that is.

Thus, for example, Kazakhstan made it to the global headlines yesterday, as it hosted an unofficial meeting of OSCE representatives in Almaty and facilitated the organization's decision to send 52-member police force to southern Kyrgyzstan. It was also throughout the course of this meeting that Kazakhstan was finally given the green light to hold an official OSCE leaders' summit later this year in its brand-new capital Astana: a summit that has not been held since 1999, and something the Kazakh authorities were apparently lobbying hard for. All in the name of a positive international image...

Since I'm at it, I also need to reference the following interview that Prime Minister Karim Massimov gave to Al Jazeera a couple of weeks ago, where he could not stress enough the high value that the authorities put on improving Kazakhstan's international image.



The only tiny detail that they failed to take note of is that any major effort to create "a positive international image" today will involve public diplomacy; while an increasingly larger part of public diplomacy is shifting to the truly "public" sphere and to people-to-people interactions. Vast energy resources might secure very profitable international business deals for Kazakhstan, but they will not, necessarily, guarantee a positive image.

There are many issues with regard to freedom in Kazakhstan (just as in all of the former Soviet states), but I would like to focus on my friend's particular concern about online freedom. Without a substantial public discourse, a major part of which increasingly takes place online - be it domestically or "with those abroad" - Kazakhstan will remain in the minds of the outside world as the "glorious" "-stan" country somewhere in Asia (or is it Europe?), with a ruling dynasty that is all too difficult to challenge. Apparently it still has to learn what "public" really means, especially in terms of international image-making.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Don't you just LOVE the "media war"? (Part II)

In December last year there was open and fairly direct hostility between FoxNews and RT. Apparently, they haven't got over it, yet. On the contrary, it's got even better. All they need to do, now, is to start pulling each other's hair. Literally, I mean.

       

This part was curiously left out of the video (see the story here):
"...and please, stop calling RT 'state-run'. I have heard that repeated again and again; it’s not. The Kremlin does not sign our paychecks or tell us how to do our stories, surely not more than Rupert Murdoch tells you how to do yours.”
And here is the segment from the Alena Show.



Unfortunately, I was unable to find Glenn Beck's piece, in its entirety, but I guess the videos above can be considered as fairly representative.

This is sad, funny, alarming, ridiculous... (I'll spare you the trouble of listing the synonyms). And they don't even charge the audience for the circus. What concerns me most, though, is RT's response: straight from elementary school, and using Mr. Beck's own "rhetorical" style.

So much for maintaining credibility and, at least, trying to achieve effective public diplomacy. Way to go, RT.

DoS Censoring Aliyev?!

I'm not sure if they are. I just find it very amusing that at least 40% of President Aliyev's remarks after the meeting with Secretary Clinton, as she was touring the region last week, were "inaudible".

Here's the very substantial and meaningful statement, in its entirety, as it appears on the official website of the State Department (date: July 4).

"PRESIDENT ALIYEV: (In progress) (Inaudible.) And I am sure that (inaudible). So it's very important for (inaudible) and the relationship with United States and Azerbaijan since (inaudible) very successful. We worked closely on (inaudible) we participate in (inaudible). (Inaudible) we worked on issues related to the fight against terrorism. And, in particular, (inaudible) policy. And (inaudible) working closely with us and (inaudible) on the resolution of (inaudible). This is a major problem for us, and a major threat to the (inaudible).
As you know, for many of us, our lands are under occupation. United Nations Security Council policy, European parliament, (inaudible), Islamic (inaudible) organization, all of (inaudible) resolution, which reflects the situation, and which demands the withdrawal of Armenian troops from international (inaudible). We want to find a resolution based on (inaudible), and we want to find a resolution as soon as possible, because our people are suffering.
I am sure that all these issues are not (inaudible) today, and I am sure that (inaudible) relations between our countries (inaudible). Welcome (inaudible)."

I wonder who prepared the transcript, and why there are no similar problems with Secretary Clinton's statement? Is this a major public diplomacy blunder by the Azeri authorities, who failed to make sure that the President actually makes sense, or was there an issue with the content of his statement itself? DoS is the gatekeeper of its own website, after all...

Thanks to Yandunts for pointing this out to me!

New Media and Conflict Resolution: Cyber-Utopia?

On Thursday the US Institute of Peace held a series of panels within the framework of its long-term media and peacebuilding project: "Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict". The impressive list of speakers included Alec Ross, Marc Lynch, Onnik Krikorian, Golnaz Esfandiari, and Adam Conner, among others. The timely subject and its multiple aspects certainly provided for a great discussion. They also raised many issues directly or indirectly relevant to public diplomacy. I'll try to touch upon some of them here.

(Image courtesy of Smartbrandblog)

The first panel gave the audience a preview of the forthcoming report - "Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics" - which tries to analyze the role of new media in political conflict. The project had many limitations, as outlined by researchers themselves (most notably: data collection, research design and methodology). Important considerations involved the identification of relevant and credible sources, the identification of appropriate and relevant networks, and the tracking of ideas and how they spread in the  information space. A major issue they addressed here was the seemingly prevalent bias in the West: research on new media mostly focuses on English-language (even when it concerns the non-English-speaking majority of the world's population) and universally-available content.

These seem to be among the foremost problems in communication-related research, especially when it comes to evaluating the effects of communication. PD faces similar problems. Then, perhaps, researchers and practitioners in the field could look into and learn from some of the ways that the authors of the report addressed the issue? We will have to wait till the report is officially released, though.

Another major issue discussed at the event was the use of social media and the blogosphere for bypassing the official state-sponsored information channels and for enhancing people-to-people contacts. The second panel, which featured prominent bloggers from Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Madagascar, focused on these points and provided for a very sobering discussion about the Western perception (or, rather, misperception) of the use and effectiveness of social media in other parts of the world.

The most interesting discussion, in my view, was that on Iran's misunderstood and misrepresented "Twitter Revolution" of June, 2009. I was very grateful to hear Esfandiari and Tehrani talk about how the story of the Green Movement exploded in non Iran-based and/or English-language Tweet-o-sphere, while having little or no significance, of its own, in Iran itself. There was also the issue of security of the Tweeters and the fact that the authorities themselves made use of the online social networks to crack down on protesters: these seemed to be largely ignored by the media (and not just media) in the West, which went up in the euphoria of "regime change" in Iran. (But of course, this is a very simplified summary. Read more on the subject here.)

(Image courtesy of Political Graffiti)

Later, Raed Jarrar made a comment, which I found very relevant too: in the early days of the Iraq invasion in 2003 several Iraqi articles and blogs, which glorified the "liberation", were overblown and given too much attention by the American and British media (while those that truly reflected the situation on the ground were conveniently ignored), simply because they served certain interests. Perhaps, the case of Iran in 2009 can be described in similar terms, too?

How is it relevant to PD? There had been many calls for "utilizing the right moment" to actively support the Iranian people - PD would be one of various channels - in their struggle for political change. The first thing to recognize, however, is the difference between "political change" and "regime change", because there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Iranian people were fighting for the former. It is also necessary to recognize that in order for PD to be truly effective, it should tap into the pressing needs and prevalent opinions of the local population and into how these relate to the interests of the initiating side (instead of being driven by assumed and misperceived needs, largely "inspired" by self-interests).

Thus, for example, Twitter certainly helped many Iranians to get their story out to the world; however, because of the exaggerated perception of its effect and the West's (unstated) obsession with "regime change", the U.S. arguably lost what could have been a great PD success story. After all, Iranians inside the country - who knew what was going on - would, most probably, expect a more sensible approach to their problem.

It is also important to consider - again - the use of social media for conflict resolution, through fostering relationship-building and encouraging independent conversations between civil society groups in various countries. People-to-people, or "open source" PD, will certainly be served well by such media and networks. After all, they can provide a more or less direct contact between conflicting sides that have, most probably, been saturated with negative perceptions and stereotypes of each other, especially when it serves "certain" interests.

Yet, there is the ever-present question of utility and purpose, especially in the case of PD. I had touched upon the issue in an earlier post, and I could not but agree with the panelists in that these virtual networks are good as long as they eventually transform into real-life relationships (or are used to maintain previously established in-person contacts). The ability of new technologies and social media's to contribute to conflict-resolution or establish long-lasting, meaningful relationships is also undermined by the fact that - as Colin Rule pointed out - short virtual messages do not provide the time or space necessary for engaging in a substantial conversation.

Nonetheless, citizen and social media's potential for PD remains strong, as long as they are recognized and utilized as tools to facilitate dialogue among troubled societies. Besides providing a platform for "popular" PD, the very promotion and facilitation of such dialogue among external "troubled" parties can earn many brownie points for the facilitator (as, in fact, is already the case). Yet, such PD attempts should be carried out with great care and sensitivity so as not to compromise the integrity or the credibility of the initiative.

In short, the belief in the potential of new media and technologies to enhance international relations and promote peaceful dialogue is certainly not cyber-utopianism. However, the development of such tools is and will remain merely as means to achieve much greater ends.

---------------------------------

As a side note:

- I found it very amusing that Ross referred, with outrage, to Hezballah's use of video games as a means to promote anti-Israeli sentiment and to recruit members. Amusing: because just a couple of weeks ago I talked about the very same issue - perception management, stereotype creation, and recruitment through "militainment" - in the U.S. At the same time, this is alarming, since either Mr. Ross is not aware of this fact, or is not willing to acknowledge it.

- Apparently, Facebook has come up with a "Peace" initiative, tracking the number of "friend" connections between people from different conflicting sides: geographic, religious, and political. For example, they currently indicate the "geographic" connections between Israel and Palestine, Albania and Serbia, India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey. A great idea! I cannot but support Krikorian's suggestion: would be lovely to see the connections between Armenia and Azerbaijan there, too!


Yes. I still do have some hope..

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy July 4!

Celebrating the "Empire of Liberty" in the capital. Culmination - the fireworks - as seen from the historic Key Bridge, Georgetown.












And, the grandiose "conclusion."



Really nice. Keeps the patriotic spirit up! That's for sure...



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Friday, July 2, 2010

Russian 101: R-Rated PD

I know, I had promised I will not be going back to complaining about some of the outrageous programming on RT: Russia's "international broadcaster" paid for by the people and supported (read: managed) by the state. But just when I thought it cannot get any more ridiculous, they managed to come up with something even more outrageous, which goes over and beyond any conceivable perception of public diplomacy. Or, at least, so I thought.

I'm subscribed to RT America's YouTube Channel, among others, and over the past couple of weeks there were some segments showing up here and there, which I would call (hmmm...) peculiar.

Teaching your language is, arguably, one of the most effective public diplomacy strategies, since not only does it provide access to a wide pool of information and new opportunities for the students, but also exposes the them to your culture. After all, learning a language is a process through which one becomes acquainted with the values, norms, beliefs, history, and generally, everyday life of the people who carry that language. Thus, it can only promote further understanding and appreciation of that culture, country, or nation. The method has been widely used for centuries, and is still an effective public diplomacy tool (typical examples: Alliance Française, British Council, Confucius Institutes, etc.).

Apparently, someone in RT America (the U.S. bureau, that is) came up with the brilliant idea of taking up a similar task: teaching basic Russian. The originality of the idea, however, was that it was to be done in (how should I put it...?) a "special way." I have no words to describe what follows, so I'll just post the promotional video for the program.



A sadder part of it is not just that this is aired almost every day (from what I gather), but also that the program has acquired a special section of its own at RT's official website. Here's a recent screenshot.


The more devout of the fans can watch all the videos posted there. They can also ask questions and discuss "philology" in the Forum section. (I guess I don't have to talk about the nature of the comments that are already there. Given the content, they are quite predictable.)

And well, I cannot resist the urge to share what I find as one of the more outrageous segments so far:



As I was searching for background info on this very appealing language-teaching method, I found that Marina Orlova, originally from Russia, has had a fairly impressive career even before making it to RT. Starting her "teaching career" on YouTube and having some success online through her personal website, she has even published her own book last year (would be curious to see the exact contents...).

Of course, an attempt to tap into the "already existing" fame of the self-anointed "Sexiest Philologist in the World", might sound like a good idea. Sex sells, after all. The tragedy of this case, however, is that RT is supposedly the official mouthpiece of Russia. By offering such "language lessons", not only is RT capturing the more "sexually oriented" audiences, but it is also referring to, and thus, perpetuating, the very sad stereotype about Russian women.

Again, I agree that there might be some potential for success in utilizing this branch of "popular culture" in attracting audience; but RT's main objective is - at least, supposedly - to credibly explain, clarify, and promote ideas and viewpoints of a nation, and not just "sell airtime"... and especially not sell degrading, tasteless, and ridiculous programming. If such a trend continues, RT (or, at least, RT America) may internalize the rationale behind Radio Sawa, in the sense of providing 90% entertainment with minimal "real content" in between. The major difference in such a scenario, however, would be that for the lack of a more appealing popular culture, RT would have to rely on this type of content.

If this is how RT envisions Russian public diplomacy and broadcasting, then Moscow better forget about improving international public opinion, especially in the U.S., on Russia and its people.