Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Armenian rabiz, ballet, and public diplomacy

Over the past two "democratic" decades, the Armenian culture has experienced a boom: a "rabiz" boom. It's hard to explain what the rabiz sub-culture really is (you know it when you hear it, I guess - and unfortunately, it's very hard to escape in current Armenia), but I believe the word came from a Soviet-era Russian language abbreviation which stood for "worker of art" ("rabotnik iskusstva").

In search of a better "definition" I googled the word and here's what the Urban Dictionary tells me:

Rabiz (n). A slang word describing a social class of Armenians that exhibit socially questionable behaviors. The "rabiz" are similar to the "redneck" class of Americans [...]. Those typicalled dubbed "rabiz" by the Armenian community generally exhibit the following characteristics, although this is not a definitive list:
1. materialistic flamboyancy,
2. the desire to wear sunglasses on all occasions, regardless of weather conditions,
3. formal clothing typically consisting of imitation Italian leather shoes, slacks, and collared silk shirts,
4. strong blend of Russian and Armenian slang words
5. "rabiz" music which, ironically, is an adaptation of Turkish songs adapted for a rabiz-Armenian audience.
6. strong body odors, prominently onions.
7. over-confidence of "picking up" girls regardless of location, occasion, or setting. 

I wouldn't want to say I like this description, but it's pretty close.

Students of anthropology, cultural studies or sociology can surely fill books writing about this weird phenomenon, but here I just wanted to mention the music. The Balkans have their pop- and turbo-folk; Azerbaijan has "mugham"; while Armenians go for rabiz. Here's a quick intro:

The great irony is, of course, that despite the supposed national conviction and the ever-present propaganda that everything Turkish, Azeri and/or Arabic-related is inherently evil, the fans of rabiz seem to have no qualms about adopting themes and styles (and sometimes even the translated lyrics) from these cultures. For instance, here is a "song" that has absolutely nothing "Armenian" about it culture-wise (if we are to take the typical ethnocentric, xenophobic and isolationist perspective).

I cannot stand this music (just as I despise the so-called sub-culture) and I do my best to avoid it as much as possible. Yet, the tragedy of it all is that over the past several years it has come to play a central role in Armenia's public diplomacy, especially within the aspect of the popular culture.

Thanks to Armenia's geography, history as well as economic "well-being", there are more people who would identify themselves as "Armenians" abroad than within the country itself (some estimates of the Diaspora range from 4 to 6 million, while the country has, officially, a population of about 3 million, though many would say that's a gross over-exaggeration).

The significance of public diplomacy in reaching out to diasporas, as well as mobilizing them for the work of public diplomacy is already a much-discussed (and well-practiced) theme. It becomes even more important for tiny and insignificant countries, like Armenia. (And, although I dislike this example, I'll draw the parallel with Israel since prominent Armenian leaders at home and abroad always seem to be looking up to it.)

The numbers of these expats (essentially, emigrants) increased over the past couple of decades as the Soviet Armenia, as well as its economy, collapsed. With them, they took their most recent culture and music tastes - often along the lines of the rabiz - inevitably making the latter the representatives of modern-day Armenia. This view is further reinforced by the Armenian TV channels broadcast from Armenia over the satellites (I believe there are about 4-5 different channels of "Armenian origin" that people can get in various parts of the world).

Here, for example, one can witness the extraordinary blend of an Oriental Armenian pearl with American-Armenian rap. (Horrible...)

It's not just TV, though. The very prominent Armenian oligarchs (the so-called "major businessmen") based in Russia, for example, have recently started sponsoring major Armenian concerts and musical festivals, usually held in Moscow, that feature - more often than not - rabiz "artists". Earlier this yearone of these events stirred up a major controversy, for instance. Yet, I guess one should be grateful that they are not making it to places such as Eurovision; not just yet, at least (although this year's Armenia's representative wasn't much better, even if she was different).

Why all this intro? Just to demonstrate why it pains me to see "decent" culture, and especially high culture, virtually absent from Armenia's cultural and public diplomacy. Yes, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as certain other artists do sometimes travel abroad, but I can (most definitely) bet that the audience they reach numbers in the hundreds, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) reached by the rabiz.

Photos by Yelena Osipova

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a ballet - Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet" - performed by the National Opera and Ballet Theater. Yes, perhaps there is nothing "Armenian" about this piece, either (written by an Englishman, and composed by a Russian); yet, the choreography as well as the performance was all done by Armenian artists. What is more, the Armenian Ministry of Culture was the one to provide the major chunk of the financial support. Why not use this opportunity for "high culture" public diplomacy, whether live or televised? After all, the Montagues and Capulets can speak for the Armenians as well as for the British... as long as there is will.

Sergei Prokofiev - Dance of the Knights

The ballet was well-done and most of the lead roles performed very well. Although there can be very little comparison with Russia's Bolshoi or the Mariinski, I still walked out from the hall quite impressed. And although many would say that high culture is inherently exclusive and not well-fitted for the "cultural enlightenment of the masses", I am more than just confident that when it comes to Armenian public diplomacy, the impressions and formed opinions will be infinitely better than those by the rabiz (and its admirers).

After all, such occasions provide the great opportunity of bringing the more or less familiar and much-liked pieces of global culture (to foreigners, but especially to Diasporans who might, in many ways, be closer to their host cultures than to the modern Armenian "pop folk") with what can be seen as "Armenian packaging".

I just wish the so-called Ministry of Diaspora starts considering musical culture as a real PD issue, as well...


Monday, June 27, 2011


A couple of days ago, while taking a stroll in downtown Yerevan, I came across this...

Others seemed to see nothing "out of place" with this picture, but I found it extremely amusing. After all, "Putinka" has achieved wide recognition in the global spirits scene since it was launched about a decade ago (including the U.S.). And now... "Medvedevka"?

After a quick research, I found out that this is - apparently - nothing new. The "Medvedevka" brand was registered back in 2005, much earlier than Dmitry Medvedev's election as President (in March 2008), and even before then-President Putin endorsed him as his successor (in December 2007). Obviously, certain business leaders felt comfortably safe about their future sales as well as political bets as soon as Medvedev was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister. (Image courtesy of Name Wire)

Even more amusing are the other brand names, which the spirits' producers rushed to register in the very late 2007: "Volodya I Medvedi" (Volodya and the bears) or "Tsar Medved" (Czar Bear -- verbatim). Here's Russia Today's coverage of the story from four years ago:

Hilarious. RIA Novosti featured an article on it, too, quoting marketing specialists:

"Yevgeny Boichenko, head of the MBA marketing program at the Moscow International Higher Business School MIRBIS, told the newspaper that any reference to well-known politicians promises greater revenues for a range of products, but especially alcohol.
'Putinka' vodka was launched in late 2003, three years after Putin came to power, and gained 2.7% of the market within a year. In 2006, the product accounted for 4.4% of the Russian alcohol market, which was estimated at $15 billion, Vedomosti reported.
"As long as Russia toys with the idea of a good tsar, using presidents' names [for product names] will be an advantage," BrandLab managing director, Alexander Yeryomenko, told the paper."

And apparently, not just Russia. Earlier this year, the "Volodya I Medvedi" brand had an issue with Russia's patent agency, which claimed that the former "undermines the state's image". Nonetheless, a local company registered the patent in Ukraine, saving the brand from its collapse and continuing the product's presence in the Russian market, as well as in the "near abroad". (Ukrainians love Putin and Medvedev as much as vodka? Interesting message...)

Perhaps not surprising at all. Russia still remains the regional hegemon, not just militarily or politically, but also economically and culturally. This is especially true in Armenia. So, no, there's nothing surprising about the fact that the brand has started an "aggressive" marketing campaign in this country, too: after all, many still look up to Russia and the Russian leaders as symbols of will and power [i.e. whatever Mr. Yeryomenko was suggesting about Russians, might very well be true of the other former Soviet bloc nations, as well].

This is the "Medvedevka Limited Edition" commercial posted by Armenia Wine on YouTube last month (I presume, they are the local distributor). I find it very telling...

It is in Russian - which, of course, is not a problem for the local audience. More notable, however, is the message: claiming "impeccable quality" and "superbly soft taste", the vodka also claims to represent the "spiritual heritage of a great nation", concluding (memorably) with "Taste of Power".

Hmm... These lines can fly around here, I guess. Would really be curious to see a commercial targeting the Western publics, though, in case the company starts exporting there, too.

Most importantly, however, it reminded me (yet again) that public diplomacy, and especially "soft power" (although I'm being very cautious to be using this term here), are sometimes inextricably linked and often interdependent with business. The latter relies on the pre-existing national image to expand and succeed abroad (especially when it comes to such "nationally-linked" products), while further reinforcing and/or extending the nation's "soft power".

Thus, whether Putin runs for President in 2012 might have no actual significance for Russia's long-term image and public diplomacy in the region. As long as Putinka and Medvedevka enjoy widespread demand, Russia can rest assured that its message will sell, too.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Documentary PD

Today, Russia Today "network" - with the help of the Russian President himself - launched its Documentary channel RTД. The major objective is to go beyond the simple news or short-feature format, and to take viewers "on a round-the-clock journey into the heart of Russia" (seems to me, it's some kind of a video version of the Russia Beyond the Headlines).

The news report describes the channel as exploring "history, culture, nature and science, all with a Russian twist". It will feature documentaries in English only (for now, at least) and will be broadcast 24/7. Medvedev seemed to be quite excited about the honor of making the "launching" click!

Not a bad idea. After all, one can fit much more perspective and information - particularly in terms of history and culture - into the documentary format. What's more, there is much more room for making a reasonable argument (this, perhaps, refers more specifically to historical documentaries) and presenting sufficient evidence to encourage the viewers to at least consider a different perspective (if not change the one they already held).

My guess is, however, RT won't be too successful in attracting a lot of audience with its documentary channel. The  primary target is, obviously, the Anglophone world (not to limit it to the U.S. public, for the argument's sake). Here, I'd be very curious to know who would have hours to spare for watching Russian-made documentaries on Russia itself.

This becomes an even greater problem having in mind the very short attention span of their target audiences, and more importantly, the factors of selective exposure and perception. The interested public that pays attention to various international channels (such as France24, Deutsche Welle, CCTV-9, etc.), already have a Russian representative in the bouquet: Russia Today itself. Would they be interested in getting yet another one? How much importance will they be giving it?

But then, it should also be said, they might actually prefer the documentaries over the news channel. Perhaps that's the section of the potential audience that RT is hoping to cover here...?

Then, there's the actual technical question. Although RTД now has its own website, with free live streaming (just as RT itself), it seems to be available on satellite only, covering all of Europe, most of the former Soviet area, the Greater Middle East and even some of the uninhabited parts of Greenland... but not the U.S. itself.

Really: what's the plan, again? Or even if it were available on satellite, something tells me the actual number of the audience would be much, much smaller than the desired one. But, without any first-hand insight, one can only speculate about their actual strategy.

Image from RTД.

This is a welcome ambition and a laudable attempt. Whether it's realistic and practical, however, is a different question. I hope RT did some market research before jumping into this cold water. I hope they have started negotiating with various cable TV providers, especially in the US.

RTД claims that it has a lot of material already (since its staff has been working on these documentaries for five years, apparently), so at least it has some "juice" to run on for a while. However, some of these documentaries and short films have already been aired on RT itself. So, not only is there a question about the extent of originality of content, but also about the degree to which RT will be running such programming on its "main" channel. Will they be sharing content? Fighting over it? Will RT turn to "news-and-analysis-only"? Or will they just start being redundant on both ends?

In any case, one thing is certain: Kremlin has great ambitions in public diplomacy. Information diplomacy, in particular. And, it's willing to spend big bucks on it.

Anyone interested in job opportunities? :-)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do airlines speak... for nations?

After a long vacation (and virtual absence) I am... taking more vacation. The two years of "Mastering" in DC - I felt - had earned me a visit back to what's supposedly "home", especially given the prospect of five years of academic hard labor starting this fall. In short, I'm back to Armenia: an "event" that deserves a separate post in itself. Here, however, I just wanted to retell the "adventures" I went through on the way to this faraway and too-small-for-the-visible-world-map place.

Given my tight student budget and the obscenely expensive tickets, my route choice was - quite naturally - the cheapest available. AirFrance? Had flied with them to and from the US in the past with no issues, so AirFrance it was: Dulles, DC - Charles de Gaulle, Paris - Zvartnots, Yerevan. Departure: June 19, Sunday. Arrival: June 20, Monday, 8 pm Yerevan time. If only I knew it all was going to turn into one giant debacle...

Two days before the flight I received an email notification from AirFrance saying that my trip was going to be rerouted. Now, instead of flying Paris-Yerevan, I was going to fly Paris-Moscow-Yerevan, of all places...! (Having encountered numerous issues while flying through Moscow in the past, I was hoping, really hoping, to avoid problems this time.) Fury.

The new route. A "touch" longer...

It was not the airline's fault, however, as the DC representative kindly explained to me over the phone. There were some strikes in Charles de Gaulle, delaying the servicing of large planes, so to get me to my destination AirFrance had ensured I take the fastest and easiest alternative route with their SKYLINE partner: Aeroflot. I had nothing to worry about and both, me and my luggage will safely arrive in Yerevan, I was assured by the kind and calm voice on the other end of the line. The only issue was the 8-hour delay, the other alternative being 3 days. So, blaming my bad luck I decided to go with it.

Checked in. Luggage stamp says the suitcase is to arrive in Yerevan via the new route. Just as planned. The comfy Boeing, cheesy movie, two cutest little co-passengers and some indefinite time of half- (or, perhaps, less than half-)sleep twisted on the seat made it seem like the eight cross-Atlantic hours flew by.

We soon landed in the rainy Paris, and when entering the transit area I noticed that the Yerevan flight was still about an hour away! The mean "Je ne parle pas anglais" lady at the transfer desk told me that even if they still had seats on the flight, my luggage will need about two hours to reroute. Best scenario: I get it days later. Worst: it gets lost in the international luggage purgatory. Recalling the pain I had to go through on past occasions, I decided to stay with my luggage and wait for the Moscow flight for (just!) four hours.

The waiting area of the 2E terminal of the Paris airport was, as always, pretty comfy. Photo courtesy of L'Aussie's Travel Blog.

The Algerian coffee server and my Kindle helped me kill the time and I was now on the Moscow-bound plane. The "poetic" Russian conversation, peppered with swearwords and surprisingly colorful expressions in the seats behind stopped sounding amusing in less than 10 minutes. I was indefinitely happy to hear them both snore after the cold "meal".

Descent. The black thunderclouds were not a problem, as I found out. Gorgeous scenery and lots, lots of light, despite it being 10pm local time. A looooooong hall, and I found myself in the passport control area packed with people.

At the transfer desk I asked the sole lady there - who just then decided to make a run for the door (barely balancing on her high heels) - where I could get my boarding pass for the following flight. She stopped. Looked at my printout of the e-ticket, then my passport, ticket, me, passport. "You are Armenian so you can exit the transit area. Go find the AirFrance representation at the other terminal, since they are the only ones who can help you now. But you have to rush since you have less than 2 hours left till your flight. Ermmm... [long gaze at my passport, the door, me, the door...] OK. I'll help you here. Run with me."

Jumping three stairs at a time we finally made it back to the passport check area and she successfully got me through the diplomatic exit. I was on my own from then on and so I set out for my search. Time was drawing increasingly closer to midnight, and since Aeroflot is the only airline working 24/7 at the airport, their desk was my only alternative, after I found no AirFrance representative to help me.

Moscow from above. Photo courtesy of Aleksey Kochemasov.

I rarely feel so grateful for my fluency in Russian. I explained my situation and the kind lady at the desk said she will do her best to help me. After about a minute - the time it took for her to type the 13 characters of my first and last names - she said she cannot see me on the Moscow-Yerevan flight list. I suggested she tries my ticket number. Another pause. "No, I still can't see you here. Are you sure you're flying to Yerevan?"

My worst fears seemed to be coming true. Well, I said, my ticket printout says that my Aeroflot flight was "confirmed", and there, she could see my luggage stamp that suggested my luggage was supposed to go to Yerevan via Moscow, too. She adjusted her glasses, looked at me suspiciously and examined by luggage stamp. "You are right," she said, "but there's nothing I can do for you at the moment. I am very sorry. I would suggest you go to our central representation at the other terminal. But do so fast, you are almost out of time."

Having never been to Sheremetyevo outside the transit area, I had no idea what distances she was talking about. My fast walk soon turned into a light jog and I sighed in relief seeing the relatively large Aeroflot office in the middle of the large hall. Another pair of large glasses and a tightly fastened bun of red hair.

After several minutes of typing and mis-typing on the keyboard (thanks to the extraordinary length of her ornate nails) the representative finally suggested that my best bet was to try and register for the flight at the actual check-in. "You're not on our list. Try there, though. In the worst case, I suggest you wait till morning to see if any AirFrance representative would be willing to help."

Another inter-terminal sprint. This time I had to cover two, which proved to be extremely difficult on the polished and highly slippery floors. It was well past 11pm and I had less than an hour before my (purported) flight. Finding the Yerevan line proved to be easy, thanks to the per person number of suitcases and bags waiting to be checked in, as well as the complete lack of order in what was only theoretically a "line".

Finally, I reached the desk. Several more minutes and yet another disappointment. She, too, directed me back to an Aeroflot desk. "They know better what to do with you. Next time you'll know who to fly with." Yeah, right...

I saw several open windows under a huge Aeroflot sign nextby. "And why did you choose AirFrance?" Good question. "I had to get to Yerevan earlier. And they had a better deal in terms of price." Seeing my "I'm about to break down" look, the lady on the other side of the glass smiled widely. "Well, it seems you are paying more than you anticipated..." She repeated everything the others had already told me and said that I could, still, buy a separate ticket for that flight, instead of waiting for someone from AirFrance to show up at some indefinite time in the morning.

Thank God for VISA. I got my ticket and rushed back to the registration desk. With the exception of the Armenian crowd, everything else went relatively smoothly afterwards. The flight attendants were extremely nice and helpful, demonstrating exceptionally high levels of patience and tolerance with their customers (I was, obviously, impressed). We finally landed in Yerevan and after another long wait in the supposed "line" for the passport check, I was indescribably relieved to see my red suitcase waiting there at the baggage claim.

The view from my window as I was finally leaving Moscow. Please note, it was about 12:30am then. This is, perhaps, as close as I've ever come to the "white nights"...

It was past 5am local time and having slept less than 5 hours in the past 48, I couldn't care less about the broken lock or the zipper. I was just longing for my bed at our Yerevan apartment.

I somewhat made a special effort to avoid Moscow on my trip, but I was rerouted there. I do understand that unpredictable labor strikes at the airport are not the airline's fault; however, it's their responsibility to get me to my destination without major delays. And when I was in need of help, Aeroflot was - or at least seemed to be, at the time - there, being a "friend indeed".

France does have a largely positive international image and a fairly strong national brand. I've never had a chance to visit the country itself, but if I were to judge based on my experience and limited interaction with some AirFrance representatives throughout this most recent trip, I cannot say my previously held (mostly very positive) image remains unaffected.

After all, national carriers can be said to be playing an invaluable role in a state's (or people's) public diplomacy, since the chances are that many more people will use their services than visit their home country itself. It's a great opportunity, although brief, to shape a certain image of the country, its people and its hospitality - or reinforce an existing one - through direct interaction with what is supposedly the best the company (and consequently, the country) has to offer.

Ironically, this trip not only proved my previously existing image of the French somewhat wrong (or, rather, should I say, became a reality check?), but also turned out to be a very pleasant surprise regarding Aeroflot and the Russians. I guess in the end of the day it's all about expectations - over-estimations and underestimations - and most importantly, perceptions, the formation of which comprises many different elements, mostly subjective and not fully rational.

And although they didn't do anything extraordinary, I will think twice before simply discarding Aeroflot next time. As for AirFrance, they better pay my full compensation...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When Strategic Communication meets Propaganda

Kudos, Al Jazeera!

Doublethink at its best. And yet, covert operations and PSYOPs seem to be getting an upper hand, yet again. Whatever happened to benign public diplomacy...