Thursday, May 26, 2011

RT. Did it again..

Yesterday, Russia Today TV came up with this apologetic segment, seemingly trying to explain and reinstate their relevance, importance, and... perhaps credibility.

I think a quick reminder is in place: credibility is attained not through repeated statements by oneself that they believe they are credible, but through actually gaining trust and proving, with actions and actual coverage (when referring to a news source) that the audience can rely on them for information. I am very glad to see that RT at least recognizes all this criticism. However, the way the network addresses the issue only makes it look more pathetic, undercutting its credibility (whatever exists of it) further.

Of course, as a major public diplomacy operation, such lack of RT's perceived credibility is a major issue for Russia, too, as it is inevitably associated - quite naturally - with the sponsoring country. Here are some suggestions for RT:

- Stop being so aware of your "difference" and act as a mature news organization (i.e. grow up!). As already mentioned, instead of trying to prove your credibility through constant statements and pathetic reminders of previous reports (such as the following), better try to get back from the fringes and provide more credible and more authoritative sources. In short, show, don't brag, and go much further beyond just telling.

- I guess one can appreciate RT's attempt to represent alternative, non-mainstream views. And yet, as noted many times on this blog, if audience and serious attention are what the network is striving for, it will have to reconsider this strategy. The latter is obviously inherited from the KGB operations in the good old times; but if RT wants to break the image of blunt propaganda or of being "Kremlin's mouthpiece" in the U.S., it has to be more than just accommodating to its audience.

- In the above report, RT is supposedly addressing the "obscure sources" criticism. But beyond these sources, it is also important to note the tone of the arguments and the complete lack of sensitivity to the intended audience. For example, the following report is a blunt criticism of a value that every American holds so dear. Then, there is also the problem of the implied assumption that by raising these issues about the U.S., RT can somehow exonerate the horrid situation in Russia or, with its magic wand, advance Russia's public diplomacy interests. I truly doubt any Americans were "converted away" by the following report... If anything, it only fed into RT's "propaganda" image.

- And last, but not least, suggestion: stop the tendency for such senseless sensationalism and the R-rated content. Seriously now, why would an international broadcaster, funded by taxpayer's money and intended for (even if indirectly) winning hearts and minds for Russia abroad feature the following video on their YouTube channel? That's, of course, nothing compared to some of the other programming featured by the network in the past...

Perhaps concern for credibility and voice should start right here? It's plain and simple.

After all, I haven't even touched upon the actual effect of the Kremlin connection yet...


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Forget politics. Georgians know how to throw a party!

May 26th marks the 20th Anniversary of Georgian independence from the late Soviet Union: an important date and a great opportunity for public diplomacy. This is especially true in the U.S., particularly given the geopolitical circumstances and the recent historical context. And well, Georgians are making the most out of this opportunity.

Quite recently they started a website - "Portrait of Georgia" - providing basic information on the country, its history and culture, politics, and certainly its problem with Russia. In short, it can be described as "Georgia 101". Less than a week ago the website also started a Twitter profile, with 12 followers only at the time of this writing. Nevertheless, it's just the beginning and the mere initiative itself is commendable.*

Going back to the Anniversary... it was a great reception, held at the Portrait Gallery in downtown D.C. on Tuesday, May 24, featuring Georgian art exhibits, live performances by awesome musicians and their national ballet group, great food, and of course Georgian wine and Borjomi (the renown mineral water).

The event page reads:
"According to a Georgian legend, on the day God was allocating parts of the world to the people of the Earth, the Georgians were feasting. As a result, they arrived late and were told by God that all of the land had already been distributed. When the Georgians replied that they were late only because they had been lifting their glasses in praise of Him, God was pleased. In return, He gave the Georgians that part of Earth that He had been reserving for Himself."

The Embassy then set out to justify the "feasting"...

There were probably about 2000 people there (though that's just my own humble estimate; the number might have been much greater) and the guest list ranged from the children of Georgian diplomats to various American military representatives, some of whom were even decorated with special Georgian Medals of Honor. The evening also featured a great singer - Sophie Nizharadze (Georgia's 2010 representative at Eurovision) - who performed the Georgian and American national anthems. I should say, she was superb.

The dance performances were awesome, too. Not only did they keep it short and lively, but made sure to feature authentic folk performances. Very entertaining, and certainly impressive.

The other highlight was, of course, the great food. The menu ranged from khatchapuri (phyllo dough with cheese) to satsivi (chicken with walnut sauce and spices) to churchkhela (walnuts in thickened grape juice). The Georgian wine went very well with it all. There was more food and drink than the guests could actually handle, which in itself seemed to have impressed many of the attendees.

In short, it was indeed a great public diplomacy event - even if the definition of "public" is somewhat limited in this case - reaching an audience much larger than the American public itself (I heard a lot of Russian there; politics was obviously set aside for the evening). The objective was to impress and project an image of grandeur and confidence from a small, albeit strategically important country. And I can bet that this objective was achieved, even if for just a day.

Yet, after overhearing a conversation on the subject, the question just stuck in my mind: "How much did it all cost?" Given the economic hardship and the ongoing political crisis at home, could Georgia really afford such lavishness? (Just renting out the space - the grand hall at the National Portrait Gallery - would have cost... a lot.)

But I guess it is all the more an indication of the importance that the Georgian leadership attributes to public diplomacy, especially in the U.S. They need support, but they also wanted to make a statement. And they did.

2011 also marks the 20th Independence anniversary of almost all other former Soviet republics, who will be celebrating the occasion in their turn. Setting the standard so high, however, almost surely guarantees Georgia to stand out, yet again demonstrating its break from its past and from the region. Georgia made a point and this message certainly resonates with the public (and with the decision-makers) on this side of the Atlantic.

Now, I'm more than just curious to see what the other FSU Embassies will have to offer...

CORRECTION: Georgia's Independence Day is May 26, and not May 24 as initially suggested. The event itself, however, was held on May 24.

* All photos by Yelena Osipova.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Passport DC: Around the World from Kazakhstan to Brazil

Earlier last week I shared some impressions from last weekend's EU Embassies Open House Day. This weekend, on May 14, many other embassies held similar events too, sharing their culture and traditions with the curious public, who braved the weather to take a peek inside what usually are unaccessible buildings.

Given my personal interests and time constraints, I decided to try and visit some of the representations of formerly or currently "not-so-democratic" countries, and dragged a kindly willing group of friends with me. Why the choice? I was curious to see how these countries will utilize this great opportunity to do public diplomacy and present themselves to a largely American public.

Unfortunately, Uzbekistan and Bahrain cancelled in advance. One can only guess the reasons for cancellation...

Also, many of the embassies that I, personally, would be very curious to visit, were sadly not participating in this great initiative to begin with (Azerbaijan, Turkey, China, Russia... the list can go on...).

Here are the ones we did visit (with some diversions from the initially planned "political" route):


As expected, there was a lot of glitter, with an exhibition of shining Kazakh "ornaments". Given all the recent attempts to improve the country's image around the world, and in the U.S. especially, I was really looking forward to see what the embassy would have to offer on Saturday. And well, I should say it wasn't that bad. If anything, it was impressive.

Quite generously, the Embassy was also giving out stacks of books by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for free, eager to bring his message to whoever would listen. Unfortunately for him, I kept overhearing funny comments by amused visitors who seemed to be unimpressed by the prolific author. Oh well...

Photo courtesy of Farkhunda Mirboboeva

Trinidad & Tobago

This embassy was not on our initial itinerary, but their music, carnival outfits and the tiny line definitely attracted attention. Small but neat: I think it was a great example of how a country of that size can benefit from such events without necessarily being hard on the budget.

Visitors could walk through the building, see amazing carnival costumes and listen to live music by a guest band. Hungry? There was traditional food on sale just outside the embassy. Indeed, why not outsource?


The entire building was open to the visitors. And although we missed the tango show, we still had a chance to try some genuine empanadas, Argentinian sausage...

...and Malbec.

The embassy held activities for children and featured various displays of traditional Argentinian objects, too. Among those, mate "gourds" occupied a special place, of course.


Housed in the gorgeous Walsh-McLean House (formerly owned by the owners of the Hope Diamond), the embassy had put on a good show.

The building itself is more than just fascinating, but the embassy had also thought of a great way to entertain the visitors: Angklung workshop - both, easy and engaging.

There were food samples for sale, more music and dance, and beautiful exhibits of various artifacts and architectural models. Well done, I should say!


Given the state of the official relationship with the U.S., I was curious to see what the embassy would have to offer.

We might have been late, but there seemingly wasn't much to be truly impressed with: some children's activities (that suffered at the rain) and a rather simple exhibit.

Nevertheless, the visitors were welcomed with a smile, and something they could relate to: The Beatles! Not a bad choice... but still, could be better.


We were hoping to get to Iraq, but since we were very short on time, we chose Brazil instead as it was on our way. Beautiful building and impressive decorations. However, nothing beyond a simple "tour". Given the country's rich culture and diversity, the embassy could have done much more to truly impress its visitors.

Bolivian guests at the Brazilian embassy

Islamic Center

On the way back, we decided to stop by the Washington Islamic Center located at the Embassy Row. The Center was opened in 1957, established at the initiative of several prominent Muslim-Americans and diplomats representing Islamic countries. As stated at its website, "The Islamic Center cooperates with U.S. Administration, Muslim and non-Muslim Organizations to promote a better understanding of Islam and the Islamic Center's ideals."

An impressive building indeed, and more than just beautiful inside.

Perhaps the most interesting part in terms of public diplomacy, however, was that the enamel tiles that make up the rich interior were donated by the Turkish Government. Back in 1969.

Great public diplomacy, not just towards the Muslim community in the U.S., but also towards the entire Islamic world. More importantly, however, it provides an example to demonstrate that Turkey was not always strictly "secular" in its foreign policy approach, and was rather attuned to cultural sensitivities in its external affairs.

Stop by, if you're ever in D.C. It's certainly worth a visit!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Passport DC: PD at its best?

Holding Embassy Open Houses has apparently become a tradition in the District: already for the fourth year, embassies in D.C. open up their doors to curious visitors, offering a peek into the best that their countries have got to offer; all without a jet lag, as they say. This all takes place in May, usually opened by the Europeans. This year they kickstarted the events with their Shortcut To Europe on May 7.

I hope to attend more of the upcoming events (and will, hopefully, get time to share some of the impressions here, too), but here are some thoughts on last Saturday.

Map of participants in the "Around the World Embassy Tour". From 2011 Passport DC Map.

Passport DC: awesome idea. Indeed, it is - potentially - public diplomacy at its best. A great opportunity to showcase a country's arts, food, history, tourism info, historical connections and current relations with the U.S... All that through direct, unhindered contact with an eager and curious public. An opportunity countries often spend millions on... (Of course, this should be a bigger deal for smaller and less prominent countries, who usually fight for attention.)

And yet, I'm afraid, even within Europe - which tends to be seen as having "mastered" the art of public diplomacy quite well - this potential was not harnessed to its best. But then, I just made it to three EU embassies...

Huge lines..


The line was huge. Took an hour to get in. Still, those waiting under the sun could watch some live tap dancing by local students and go through some tourism magazines which the Embassy was generously giving out.

"Gastrodiplomacy" - best route to the hearts and minds?

Inside, there was some great live music, attempts at hurling recruitment (especially women!), and some yummy food samples. Most of the major rooms of the gorgeous embassy were open to visitors, which was itself exciting.

Great music!


Another one with a huge line. There were some folk dancers in front of the building, but we just got to watch them from across the street, while waiting to get in to Ireland. I'm not quite sure if the dancers ever got back from their "break".

Seems there wasn't much to be impressed with...

Then, the embassy "tour" itself was disappointing, especially after the 45-min wait. Only one hall (in the basement) was open to visitors and it featured maps and info from local tourism agencies, with food samples from local Greek restaurants/stores. There was an unappealing tourism video playing on a large screen, but I'm sure Greece has much more to offer than just faded images of obscure islands. In short, it resembled a business venture, while the "idea" of Greece itself was lost in between.


Gorgeous views from the rooftop of the Sweden House

The Sweden House was the last one we made to before the day was over. The amazing building at Georgetown Waterfront showcased the country's dedication to sustainability and green energy, the major construction project in D.C. by SKANSKA, and various other activities for kids (and not only), that made the visit all the more exciting.

In case you want to hear more about the details

"Table Hockey" seemed to be the highlight of the day :)

I heard many other embassies also featured great events, but the lines and the short time period call for prioritization. It would help to have more time... and a better description by embassies in advance of all the various activities/events they will be featuring. Makes planning easier.

Yet, I admit, it would also make the job of smaller countries, who plan on keeping the Open House small too, much more difficult. For example, limiting the description to "Come visit the Embassy of Luxembourg for the day!" will not generate much interest, especially if compared to others who promised cultural events and wine samples.

That was just the beginning, though. Many others will be hosting visitors and/or organizing cultural events throughout the month, so make sure to check out the schedule if you're in town. My personal recommendations include:

Around the World Embassy Tour on Saturday, May 14 (would love to see Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Venezuela... and perhaps Bahrain, but that should rather take the form of a protest).

- 2011 Eurovision Final viewing party at the Goethe-Institut (since Germany is hosting the event this year) on Saturday, May 14. (Will be sharing more thoughts on Eurovision itself later this week...)

Fiesta Asia Street Fair on Saturday, May 21.

- Also, the awesome "World Jazz" series at the Twins Jazz club.

Here you can download the full brochure and the 2011 Program Guide.

And just to close, it's a shame Armenia is not doing anything this month. I'm sure they could have afforded to spend a tiny part of their annual budget on a one-day event. Or perhaps even cooperate with the local diasporan community... So where are the patriots now?

Oh well...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Victory Day!

May 9 marks the day the Soviet forces took over Berlin in 1945: i.e. the day World War II came to an end in Europe, at least on the Eastern Front. That was a big deal at the time, and still is... in the former Soviet region, that is. I am still dismayed at the lack of acknowledgement and recognition of the Soviet war effort in Western, and especially American "tradition". (For example, none of the major American news organizations mentioned the story on their front pages today, with the exception of The Washington Post.)

I had written about the case last year, but I have come across some interesting figures and information since, which I thought I would take the opportunity to share today.

Firstly, in his 2007 paper, Ivan Katchanovski cites some outrageous statistics:
"More than half of high school graduates in the U.S. in 2004 thought that not the Soviet Union, but Germany, Italy, and Japan were US allies during the Second World War. A Gallup poll in 1994 showed that 11, 12, and 65 percent of Americans considered that the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States respectively contributed the most to the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II, even though in fact at least 75 percent of German military casualties were inflicted on the Eastern Front."

Yet, perhaps not that surprising. The Cold War, coupled with still ongoing "Russophobia", lack of in-depth and well-informed news and academic analysis on the country, as well as persistent cultural biases and stereotypes can certainly explain where such attitudes are coming from. However, such historical distortions should be unacceptable and do pose a major problem for the public diplomacy of the countries concerned.

Russia has taken this issue seriously and has included it in its 2008 Foreign Policy Concept:
"The reaction to the prospect of loss by the historic West of its monopoly in global processes finds its expression, in particular, in the continued political and psychological policy of "containing" Russia, including the use of a selective approach to history, for those purposes, first of all as regards the World War Two and the post-war period."

Then, among the major public diplomacy objectives outlined in the Concept (a section called "International humanitarian cooperation and human rights"), it is stated that Russia will seek to:
"...firmly counter manifestations of neofascism, any forms of racial discrimination, aggressive nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, attempts to rewrite the history, use it for instigating confrontation and revanchism in the world politics, and revise the outcome of the World War Two."

It has certainly been trying to do so, especially through lavish parades on the Victory Day over the past decade (all too reminiscent of the past, I admit). Perhaps the most prominent among those was last's year's military parade - marking the 65th Anniversary - on the Red Square. Here's the Russia Today coverage of this year's parade.


Part 2

This year the "celebrations" were a little more humble, and still, the parade featured a record number of participants. Russia Today dedicated a lot of time to it, too: besides just relaying shots from the center of Moscow, its programming was also sprinkled with commentary on the historical relativism surrounding the issue (with a special twist, of course).

Then, of course, Medvedev made sure to congratulate everyone in English, too, on his blog and on Twitter. In short, a multi-media offensive. If only people who they are really targeting paid any attention...

In many ways, I couldn't agree more with Stephen Cohen - he does indeed touch upon some (but not all, at least not explicitly) of the issues persisting in the perceptions of the publics on both sides.

Lastly, kudos to U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle, who - yet again - demonstrated to the Russians that he remembers. But then, for him it's also a family matter.

Yes, the Soviet Union was "bad". Yes, Stalin subjected his own population to many horrors, too terrible to be put in words. Yet, the Soviet people paid a price of close to 27 million casualties in World War II, and they deserve to be remembered and honored, despite their terrible leader at the time. After all, WWII is not just about Pearl Harbor or D-Day, and the world could have been a very different place had there not been the Soviet people to stop the Nazi advance.

Happy Victory Day!

The Master

Finally making the big come-back to the blogosphere...

Now, with all the end-of-program hard work complete and all graduation-related chaos behind, I can proudly take on the title of a "Master" in International Communication. The past two years weren't easy, but they were more than just exciting and certainly life-changing. For one, I discovered public diplomacy, the subject I ended up focusing on in my studies and hope to continue exploring throughout my Ph.D.-ship at the School of International Service, American U. (Of course, there's the whole debate on whether PD can at all be considered an academic "field" or "discipline", but since the subject is so under-theorized, I think there are many gaps to be filled...)

So, before I made by daily post, I wanted to congratulate my friends, colleagues and schoolmates, as well as all other graduating students around the world. Wishing you all success in all your endeavors!

I also owe a BIG "thank you" to SIS for the Hall of Nations award, which made this experience possible. I wouldn't have been here without it.

Cheers, Masters! :)