Friday, July 15, 2011

Global Chaos goes to Georgia

I mean, Georgia the country.

Although I had spent years abroad and have traveled half-way across the world from Armenia, I had never visited its closest neighbor. It's one of the only two borders I could cross from Armenia (the other being Iran, which is a different story...), but I had never had the opportunity of making that trip. And despite the realization that I can trace some of my own heritage to Tbilisi, I had never gotten an excuse to actually learn more about this amazing place.

[*Photos by Yelena Osipova. Click for a larger view.]

All this, coupled with related academic interest, curiosity, and perhaps even regret finally took me there. Here are some of the impressions of an Armenian, a global nomad, an international relations student, and a public diplomacy enthusiast. I know, there's always "a first time" and first impressions might be misleading, but since public diplomacy rarely allows for long-term and consistent efforts, the experience of a three-day tourist might be quite opinion-changing.

Armenia. Past Alaverdi, Lori Region. So pretty!

We left Yerevan early in the morning. Thanks to the very generous Armenian Ministry of Transportation, which cannot even properly maintain one of the major so-called highways connecting this tiny, landlocked country to the outside world, I spent about four hours shaking on the backseat of a cab (a Lada, of course) to make the 200km trip to the border. [Forget public diplomacy for visiting foreigners; what of the economy, after all?!] Fortunately, we were driving through some of the prettiest landscape in Armenia; that kept me and my camera occupied for a while.

The Armenian-speaking Azeri lady who sold us expensive peaches on the other side of the border. They were good, however...

Crossing the border was easier than I anticipated. Of course, my Russian-sounding name caused some suspicion and I had to answer a set of extra questions; but that was all. The newly-renovated highway beyond the Armenian border took us through some Azeri- and Armenian-inhabited villages, as well as the spot where the old granny had damaged Armenia's fibre-optic Internet cable earlier this year. A big contrast with Armenia, of course.

Information society in Marneuli, Georgia. Although the town was in the middle of nowhere and seemed to be pretty poor, most of the windows featured at least two satellite dishes.

Locating our hotel in Tbilisi, however, proved to be more than just frustrating. I could find no well-detailed maps online or hard-copy ones with the few travel agencies that I checked; while, to my surprise, there is no map of Georgia or Tbilisi on GoogleMaps at all. [By the way, that's another interesting subject to explore. The official Google explanation is irrelevant, since there are quite detailed maps of Baku and Yerevan by now; I wonder if it's anything similar to the case of Israel...?]. Yet, the most annoying fact was that there were very few signs - if at all - in Russian or English.

UNM (United National Movement) is the President's Party.

I guess that's a general observation and a very important complaint from a public diplomacy perspective: the issue of the foreign language. Yes, Georgia (rather, its current administration) has made it clear that it wants to distance itself from Russia and the other CIS countries, which includes dramatic changes in foreign policy, rewriting of history, a lot of public diplomacy [or should I say, propaganda, in this case..?] and forgetting the Russian language. And although many - even from among the older generations - have successfully internalized this latter point, forgetting (or rather, pretending to have forgotten) their Russian, they have thus far failed to learn English (or any other foreign language, for that matter).

Checking the dictionary or Googling a phrase does not require special language skills. And yet, one's got to appreciate the effort...

This applies not only to the general population at the capital or the shopkeepers who have to deal with foreigners on a daily basis, but also to most of the street signs as well as the police, who couldn't even help with directions. I respect the uniqueness of the Georgian language as well as the ambitions of the Georgian government - that's not the issue. The problem is communication, and as much as one might despise a foreign nation, if the latter's language is one of the six major and official languages in the world, forgetting it altogether is a big mistake. Georgia cannot change its geography, while if it wants successful communication with its neighbors or the outside world (no matter the issue), it needs to seriously work on its language skills. Just for the record.

The New Presidential Residence. One Tbilisi resident told me they refer to it as "the egg". It's a pretty view; especially at night.

The new bridge enjoying special lighting effects along with the TV tower and the Presidential Palace.

The town is pretty and certainly represents Georgia best: the blend of history and modern ambitions; remnants of the Soviet era alongside major Western symbols; extreme poverty next door to conspicuous wealth; beautiful green parks with ugly recent constructions; and of course diversity [unparalleled in the region] alongside extreme chauvinism.

The new Residence, the blue bridge and the bright cupola of the new cathedral are simply too bright, even if modern.

President Saakashvili has undertaken the herculean task of restoring and improving the face of his capital: renovating the Old Town and some of the historical constructions, while building several new giants (including his Residence), which, although pretty on their own, do not blend in with the cityscape at all. In a way, perhaps, this further underlines all the paradoxes and incongruousness found in modern-day Georgia.

The still Soviet building of the Academy of Sciences (please note the star on the top) with a grand McDonald's next door. It seemed to be pretty popular.

Too many houses falling apart, a couple of blocks from the Presidential Residence. Yet, there are people still living in many of them. Restoration projects will take years.

Yet, really changing perceptions abroad cannot be achieved simply by touching up the appearance of the country or its capital. Some of the people I talked to sounded more or less optimistic and expressed hope for the not-so-close future [yet, please note: there's still hope for the better, unlike the case in Armenia]; many others, however, were very sarcastic and unhappy about their "current situation", complaining of no substantial changes since the Rose Revolution and despising the seemingly endless paranoia. I guess that was expected.

Surb Norashen Armenian church that had caused some controversy in the past in downtown Tbilisi. The walls had cracks, windows were broken, and there were clear signs of fire. Right next door, in the same yard, there was a fully-restored Georgian Orthodox church.

I found certain other things just as I expected, too. Tbilisi had historically been the cultural hub and the most diverse spot in the Southern Caucasus and it still remains as such. Georgia's stubbornly pro-Western foreign policy as well as the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict have made Tbilisi the international center of the region as well, as it hosts many of the regional representations of international organizations and companies, along with various conferences, seminars, and trainings.

Georgians do have a sense of humor, don't they?

Walking in the streets I could catch conversations not just in Georgian, but also in Armenian and Azeri, as well as some hushed voices in Russian; yet, only in Tbilisi can an Armenian enjoy a marvelous evening with Georgians and Azeris at a Soviet-themed cafe called "KGB". [I guess I should make a disclaimer here, that because of my Armenian passport I cannot visit Baku to make a really regional comparison. But something tells me, that's not the case. Just as it is not in Yerevan...]

Loved being in "khatchapuri-land" [cheese in dough]!

And the food...? Oh, don't get me started on the food. I'll just limit it all to one word: amazing.

A traditional Georgian supra [meze or tapas], with copious amounts of cheese and walnut puree.

Of course, it's not all happy and pink (despite all the roses around; literally). One just needs to read the news to get the full picture: seemingly peaceful political protests were broken up in May with not a single criticism from the international (i.e. "Western) community; religious minorities could not get legal status up until very recently; despite the relatively improved "Freedom House" score, the state of political freedoms remains worse than during the pre-2003 era; while what would be criticized as oppression of "media freedoms" elsewhere, is being left to "two governments" to sort out privately. There is obviously a long way to go, before Georgia can become a real democracy. But then, everything is indeed proving to be relative and it is in this relative perspective that Georgia's strength lies.

The Narikala Fortress and Metekhi Church/Fortress/Prison. Pretty at night!

In short, I am impressed and very glad to have taken the trip. Georgia, you did a pretty good job with your hospitality, but [and here comes the ever-present complaint] you could have done a much better job for what you are and what you want to be. I might disagree with some of the politics, but when it comes to making an impression, you are learning the ways. Just remember, you don't have all the time in the world.

UPDATE [07.19.2011]: As I was going through my pictures, I realized there was another one I intended to post here.

It is a monument dedicated to the "Eternal Memory of the Heroes of the Revolution" in a park in downtown Tbilisi. It seems to be roughly done and carries the dates: 1905, 1917 and 1921 (the year Georgia actually became a member of the USSR). As you can see, the monument is in a pretty bad shape. And yet, it is still there, standing.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh, "Blyuuuberi Khill"

Of course, it will be a while before the world forgets Putin's memorable performance on that very warm December evening. (By the way, "fundraising for Russia's sick children II" is already on its way, despite all the previous controversy surrounding it.)

Not that the official and unofficial PR corps of "Russia’s judo-hurling, butterfly-swimming, tiger-tranquilizing strongman PM" would let him be forgotten. The following video appeared on YouTube some time over the past week, and what did Russia Today TV do? They reposted it, of course.

I wonder if such form of "recycling" also implies endorsement. After all, the Putin vs. Medvedev battle is already on... What this means for Russia's public diplomacy - a job which RT is allegedly tasked with - is a different question.

Russia's great leader, even if only the "second" at the moment, has tirelessly worked to increase his profile domestically, as well as abroad. Long rides on yellow Lada-s, roaring bike appearances and attempts at making statements of "warmth" in English are only a part of the bouquet.

Here's another interesting piece of info: remember that 2003 international poll where the majority of the respondents referred to communism, KGB, snow and mafia as their top associations with Russia? It seems like 8 years on the image might have changed, a bit; but whether it's for the better, is very questionable.

About a week ago, Russia Beyond The Headlines posted an unofficial poll on their Facebook page through the "Questions" application asking: "If I say Russia what do you think of?" Of course, it's no where close an actual, credible or systematic poll to be cited as trustworthy research; however, there were 416 votes from all over the world, making this an interesting "pilot" project.

As you can see, "Vodka" is on the top - by far - getting 98 votes. "Putin" comes next, with 51 votes. "Mother Russia" and "Beautiful girls" are next in line (I just hope the latter does not refer to "sex-tourism" and mail-order brides...), with Kalashnikovs ("AK-47") among the top five, too. Perhaps the other very ironic association was "Chernobyl" (although it got just 4 votes), which is (and was, even back in 1986) in Ukraine, and not Russia.

Glad to see historical figures and events as well as references to arts and culture in the list, too. Yet, it is obvious that some of the not-so-positive stereotypes are not gone at all. Most of all, it's interesting to see the current Prime Minister figuring so prominently: perhaps he is after all Russia's best public diplomat, for better or worse?

He is trying to personify strength, will, and power, as well as demonstrate some moderate closeness to people and the fauna. I feel compelled to quote the sociological axiom: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

I'm not quite sure it's the best approach to public diplomacy in the case of Russia, however. Particularly in the West.


UPDATE: A friend just shared the following article, which indirectly continues my line of thought in the post above: "Top Kremlin aide says Putin is God's gift to Russia". Quotes of note:

""I honestly believe that Putin is a person who was sent to Russia by fate and by the Lord at a difficult time for Russia," Vladislav Surkov, a staunch Putin supporter and one of Russia's most powerful men, was quoted by Interfax news agency as telling state-run Chechen TV.
"(Putin was) preordained by fate to preserve our peoples," said Surkov, who is also the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff. 
Two months ago, a nun-like sect appeared in central Russia claiming that Putin was a saint and a saviour. A spokesman said Putin "does not approve of that kind of admiration"."

Oh, so now he's a Saint, too...?!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The anti-"SoftPower Inc."

Did you know there is a social network and youth-driven uprising going on in Belarus? Most probably, not... many might not even consider it "news" anymore. And yet, things have gone from bad to worse most recently, again.

Fed up with the political and economic situation in their country and inspired by the Arab Spring, many young Belarusians have been organizing online and taking to the streets (yet again) in non-violent protests against Lukashenka's government. The center point? Twitter [@internetREVOLT] and VKontatke, the Russian equivalent of Facebook [Revolution Through Social Networks --> Movement of the Future].

Activists claim that hundreds have been detained throughout Belarus within the past couple of weeks only. While Bat'ko, the Father of all Belarusians, has lashed out against the protesters during the military parade marking the 20th Anniversary of Independence. He blamed external forces for meddling in his country and reiterated that he will not bow down to (the unknown) "them". Here's a quote:

"(Somebody) is trying to copy a 'coloured revolution' scenario here," he said, referring to protest movements in ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-2004. 
We understand that the goal of these attacks is to impose uncertainty and turbulence, to destroy public consent and in the end to put us on our knees and to bring all the achievements of our independence down to zero. This is not going to happen."

It's more than just obvious who the Great Leader was referring to, but for those needing further clarification, there is this video:

Thanks to Vilhelm Konnander for sharing. [P.S. - Do pay attention to the green screen in the very beginning. Quite amusing...!]

Too bad it's not available in English. But I guess the video sort of speaks for itself. In short, it ridicules the online activists, referring to America's "Soft Power Inc." as the perpetrator and the official sponsor of chaos. It labels online activism as "the best job for an idiot" (paid for by the U.S. State Department), while suggesting that the followers/participants are all "hamsters" in a mob. Most importantly, the video makes it clear that the movement is closely monitored and that the names and photos of the activists are all taken note of.

A bad piece of Lukashenka propaganda: badly put together, blunt and old (rather, antiquated) style, despite the new packaging. Most of all, it's a great example of counter- (what the U.S. would call) "American public diplomacy through democracy promotion". This masterpiece would probably work great with those who already follow and trust Belarus' official media, obviously the primary target of this YouTube "campaign".

And this is how Belarus fights the information war.

As for the "2012" movie reference, seems like it's a popular trend in the former Soviet area. Remember this?


UPDATE [July 6, 2011]: Here's a great post regarding these events and the related online activity on Global Voices Online. This is certainly not over.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Clinton on the relationship with Russia

A couple of days ago, I saw this interview on Russia's 24/7 news channel. The interview wasn't too long, but she also touched upon public diplomacy among several other issues.

After a long search, I finally found the video online:

Хиллари Клинтон: США и России надо углублять отношения

Apparently, Russia Beyond the Headlines even featured the translated transcript of the interview. Here is what she said on public diplomacy:

Q: You are the coordinator from the American side of the Presidential Medvedev-Obama Commission. Do you think it’s effective enough, and what do we have to do to improve it perhaps?
H.C.: I think the commission that our two presidents established has been very important because it provided an organizing mechanism for our governments and for our citizens to find ways to cooperate. So look at what we’re doing, of course, in the media, as you are one of the leaders of. But on energy efficiency and renewable energy, on nuclear security, how we protect nuclear power plants, especially after what happened in Japan. On sports exchanges – there were a group of young Russian basketball players who came and played basketball with President Obama on the White House court. So I think what we’re doing is building these connections.
In international politics, countries have to work hard to find ways of cooperating, and we have done that on this New START Treaty, on Iran’s nuclear threat, on Afghanistan, on counternarcotics, on counterterrorism. We have a very important and growing set of activities between our two governments, and then the commission takes that and then adds onto it cultural exchanges, artistic exchanges. We’re going to have a year-long exchange of cultural programming coming to Russia – the seasons of America, everything from ballet to jazz to hip-hop. So this commission that Foreign Minister Lavrov and I co-chair for our presidents, I think, has made a lot of progress.

Clinton seemed to be in great mood and her constant laughter did demonstrate confidence and ease. She didn't even shy away from more personal questions and took the opportunity to reiterate, yet again, that she is not eyeing the position of the U.S. President.

I do recommend watching the video (even if you don't understand Russian) and/or reading the transcript. Clinton sounds very positive and enthusiastic about it all.

Perhaps too positive for a diplomat?