Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Yeltsin Gangnam Style

Again, I'm not doing a great job keeping up with the blog. But, I hope my readers will pardon the absence of the busy PhD student. I will do my best to make up as soon as the semester is over.

Meanwhile, as I was doing some preliminary background research on Russian public diplomacy for my pre-dissertation work, I came across this priceless video.

Funny, that while Psy and his YouTube record, are credited for enhancing South Korea's soft power and promoting its nation brand, the dancing Yeltsin was certainly among Russia's worst image nightmares.

Food for thought... :)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Role of the Arts in International Relations

The Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) - a joint initiative between the History department at the American University and the Russian Embassy in the US - held its (by now annual) grand event at the Library of Congress on Thursday, October 25. I had mentioned the Initiative on this blog last April, when they put together an interesting conference on "Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes". The monthly Russian movie screenings at the Embassy have resumed, as well, with "The Messenger Boy" kicking off this academic year.

The event last Thursday - titled "The Role of the Arts in International Relations" - was of slightly different nature, however. It involved a lavish reception in the main hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, live performances by the Brass Ensemble of the Mariinsky Theater and amazing pianist Denis Matsuev, presentations on the role of culture and public diplomacy in international affairs by John Beyrle (former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow) and Valery Gergiev (General Director of the Mariinsky Theater and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra), and - perhaps most impressive - a wonderful live ice skating performance, right there, inside the Jefferson Building.

Monday, October 22, 2012

PCDF Launch at AU

Last Wednesday, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine attended the launch of the Public and Cultural Diplomacy Forum (PCDF) at the American University. Her remarks centered on the issue of collaboration in public diplomacy, especially between the public and private sectors. You can read the full text here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Al Jazeera on teleSUR

A feature produced by Al Jazeera's "Listening Post" produced this week focuses on the Latin American teleSUR, seen by many as Chavez' own attempt at public diplomacy through international broadcasting. All questions and issues raised are fair and to the point. However, coming from Al Jazeera, which, itself, is funded by the Qatari government and has been strongly criticized over its coverage of the conflict in Syria, such statements are increasingly becoming all too ironic...

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress

2012 marks the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, as it was in 1512 that Hakob Meghapart (Jacob the Sinner) opened the first Armenian press in Venice, Italy. To mark the occasion, UNESCO designated Yerevan, Armenia's capital city, as its 2012 World Book Capital and the Correr Museum in Venice featured a major Armenian exhibition earlier this year. Now, the Library of Congress - the largest in the world - is showcasing some of its own treasures here, in Washington, DC: "To Know Wisdom and Instruction."

The Armenian Exhibit poster at the main entrance of the Library of Congress.

Dr. Levon Avdoyan, Library’s Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the Near East Section and Curator of the exhibit, says the exhibit took a lot of time and effort. With support from the Dolores Zohrab Leibmann Fund and some generous donations from several Armenian Diasporan families, Dr. Avdoyan managed to put together a display of more than 70 objects from among the 45,000 Armenia-related items held by the Library. Of course, he says, the choice was a difficult one, but his intention was to tell the story of the Armenian literary tradition, while highlighting the Library's invaluable collection.

I got special permission to take pictures inside and what follows are just some of the items on display. 

Before I get there, though, I believe it is important to point out the exhibit's immense contribution to Armenian cultural and public diplomacy, in general. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Library and I bet that many of them would not be able to identify Armenia on the world map, even if they have heard of the country before. This exhibit - right next door to Jefferson's legendary library collection, by the way - not only provides a crash course on the more recent part of the Armenian literary history, but it also contextualizes it within the Ottoman, Persian, Russian, European and American histories, without all the drama and tragic tone that usually accompanies such Armenian endeavors. And perhaps more important: independently from the Armenian government itself (whether financially, or otherwise).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Syria: The Conversation That's Largely Missing

The events in Syria have been in the top headlines, on and off, for more that a year now. There is an angle to the story, however, that seems to be largely ignored, whether in the news or in the day-to-day discussions that I hear or participate in: the rhetoric of it all.

In the "West", the dominant narrative goes like something along these lines: "The blood-thirsty dictator is holding on to power, against the wishes of his own people, who have rebelled against him inspired by the wave of 'democracy and freedom' that has swept the region. Supported by his direct and indirect supporters - Russia, China, Iran and Hizballah - the regime is obviously prepared to take all necessary action, whether military or not, to crush this popular uprising and ensure its own survival." The leaders in the West have made it crystal clear that they want Assad out, and although nobody seems to have a clue as to what would come in its stead, they do want regime change. There are also certain interested parties within the U.S. that are, apparently, pushing for even stronger action.

In the "East" (and by this, I'm referring largely to the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and other sympathetic perspectives), the painted picture is the exact opposite: "Extremist forces (and the term 'terrorist' is often used quite liberally), supported and funded by fundamentalist Saudis, expansionist Turks, and increasingly arrogant Qataris, are on a quest to overthrow the government, and all stability with it. If the Sunnis take over the country, chaos and ethnic cleansing will ensue, and will surely spread across the region. Meanwhile, the West - namely America - sees this as an opportunity to stretch its muscle and get involved in yet another country in the region. All the 'unverified' video clips on YouTube and undercover journalist reports are - if not outright fabricated - then grossly exaggerated and biased. Russia and China will stand against any such 'breach of international law' and will not allow any other Western nation and/or coalition to meddle in the internal matters of a recognized state."

These perspectives are, of course, oversimplified. However, at their core, the dominant narratives hardly go further than that. Needless to say, there are people and analysts on both sides that see slightly more than the mere black or white, but their views don't seem to permeate into the greater public discourse as much.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Winning "softly". Lebanon edition.

Books can be (and I'm sure, have been) written on this subject, but here I just wanted to highlight two very interesting - and more or less, recent - examples of the fight for popularity in Lebanon.

The first is a "Beer Fest" put together earlier this month by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The embassy (!!). The event was put out on Facebook and the initial invitees were welcome to extend the invitations further. Here's the text:
Join the Beirut Brewers Guild at 7:00pm on Friday, 13 July 2012, to celebrate the greatness that is beer. Please extend this invitation to your friends (2 degrees of separation only, please) and we can all have a jolly good time. Casual dress, adults only. There will likely be dancing.
If you plan to attend, please write your name on the wall so we can put in the paperwork to get folks through the gate.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No more "Alyona Show"

According to the latest info, Alyona Minkovski, the host of "The Alyona Show" on RT, will be joining the HuffPost Live online video service.

My sympathies to all the fans...

The first question I had when I saw the news was whether she will be taking this up in addition to her RT job, taking the show with her to HuffPost Live, or leaving both, RT and the show for good. Although there seems to be no detail on any of these just yet, a tweet from Alyona herself, yesterday, suggests that the show will be ending soon:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pentagon's "Hollywood Liaison" on WAMU

Just in case you missed today's Kojo Nmandi Show (and well, for those outside of the DC area, there would - probably - be no reason to be listening to it, in the first place), I thought I'd highlight the special guest he had: Phil Strub, the Director of Entertainment Media at the Department of Defense. In short, Pentagon's "Hollywood Liaison", that Al Jazeera kept talking about all this time.

Quite an interesting discussion, I should say, especially given that he seems to be the guy behind the scenes, rarely in the limelight. Especially not on a radio talk show all the time.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Russian "Orientalism"?

Keeping with this week's "cinematic" theme...

"Russian Orientalism" might sound inapplicable or ironic, given that the Russians themselves have been (and still are) the subject of the "West"'s Orientalist stereotypes and approaches, especially with regards to references such as (and those reminiscent of) "Oriental" and/or "Enlightened Despotism".

But, since everything is relative, Russians themselves have had their Orientalist stereotypes, which are still very much alive and kicking (trust the one with the "Armenian" label, on this). Just as with every other nation, these stereotypes are reflected in (and, in turn, perpetuated by) the culture, whether "high" or "popular", and often come alive in novels, poems, paintings, operas, ballets, and more recently, movies, cartoons, and TV shows (remember "imagology"?).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Militainment and "Act of Valor"

Al Jazeera's "Listening Post" last week had a segment on "Act of Valor" - a box office hit that came out back in February - starring active duty Navy SEALs, using "real" equipment and tactics from the Pentagon itself, and shot during actual training sessions.

This comes a little late, perhaps, but is certainly worth revisiting in light of the patriotism high and all the hype surrounding the Fourth of July.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On RT being the "Most Popular Foreign News Channel in Key US Cities"

This post was supposed to have been up last week, but I was waiting for a note from Nielsen, secretly hoping that they might, eventually, respond. They did not. So, here we go.

In early June, Kim Elliott, arguably the leading blogger on international broadcasting, had a post linking to a story in The Moscow Times, stating that "Russia Today [is the] Most Popular Foreign News Channel in Key U.S. Cities" in 2011. According to the article:

Viewership in New York alone nearly tripled, while the channel also made significant advances in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the report by media analysis company Nielsen said, RIA-Novosti reported Tuesday.
The report said RT beat out EU's Euronews, France 24, Germany's Deutsche Welle, the Middle East's Al Jazeera English, Japan's NHK World and China's CCTV News in the five cities in the report, though the BBC was not included in the analysis. In New York, RT's weekly audience was nine times that of NHK World, and in Chicago, daily viewership was three times higher than Al Jazeera's.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Azeri "Public Diplomacy" in DC

You might or might not have heard of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival held annually on the National Mall. I'll be honest, having lived in DC for three years now, it is the first time that I actually made it there, and that was not as much for the festival itself (which is bad, I admit, because it was actually great!), but because I was promised a George Clinton performance.

In short, I was going to spend the evening there and I had heard that there will be some food. It was perhaps due to this initial ignorance that I was absolutely shocked (and honestly, pleasantly surprised - at first) to see "Azerbaijani food" among other concessions (such as barbecue and comfort food). Putting the exclusive "Azerbaijani" label on dishes such as dolma or kebab was a little too politically incorrect, I thought (OK, they even had Efes, which is perhaps the one thing everyone will agree is not Azerbaijani). But if others do it, why can't Azeris do it, too... right?

When I got to the Mall, I was curious to check out their food stand. The lines were pretty big. And yes, I was actually impressed, at first.

Then, I saw the T-shirts.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Russian "soft power" in Armenia

I have written, on multiple occasions, about Russia's "soft power" (and hegemony) in its near abroad. The post I would suggest you go back and read, through, is one from more than two years ago.

Clearly, having lived outside of Armenia for perhaps too long now, and having studied public diplomacy and "soft power" a little, I cannot but read into instances of those, especially in the region. Things that many people would take for granted, look very peculiar (and sometimes amusing) to me.

This billboard is the perfect example of that. It is in downtown Yerevan and I saw it last summer, when I was back, visiting. It was still there this year.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

RT debates "Skeptical Power"

Russia Today's Peter Lavelle hosted an interesting discussion on CrossTalk yesterday: the program fucused on soft power, its various meanings and implications, the weaknesses of the concept, and some of the misunderstandings about it. I was very happy to see my very own professor, Dr. Craig Hayden, among the guests, too.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Eurovision 2012: In between propaganda and... propaganda

The Eurovision final was held a couple of days ago, and since I had promised to write more on the subject, I tried to put together some materials and personal reflections on what happened. There were two major issues of note about this year's Eurovision, held in Azerbaijan: the attempted, and yet unsuccessful, "public diplomacy" by the regime, and Armenia's "boycott".

Official Eurovision 2012 logo. From:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Azerbaijan's "Caviar Diplomacy"

I'm sure you have seen and heard "diplomacy" used in many different forms and configurations. Well, now you can add "caviar" to the list, as well. This one refers specifically to Azerbaijan, however.

With Eurovision 2012 being held in Baku, the Azeri regime thought they could seize the moment and turn it into a great public diplomacy opportunity. They built a massive Crystal Hall, cosmetically brought their house into order, and are now trying to maintain it as they host their guests from all over Europe (and beyond). This is backfiring now, however, as instead of updates on who made it to the Final and who didn't, the West (where many couldn't care less about Eurovision itself) is reading media reports on political and human rights abuses in the country. The government's desperate attempt to cover it all up isn't helping much either.

Crystal Hall in Baku. Image from Belgovision.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Diversity March in Yerevan Hijacked by Ultranationalists

In December 2002, the UN General Assembly had declared May 21 as the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary, the UN encouraged local communities to take action and commemorate the day by supporting diversity.

As I had noted a couple of days ago, Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK Armenia) and the Women's Resource Center of Armenia NGOs had declared May 21-26 a "Diversity Week" in Armenia. They had planned a series of events, the first of which was going to be a Diversity March downtown Yerevan. Given the recent events surrounding LGBT issues in Yerevan and all the societal agitation, frustration, and distortion, the march promised to be eventful. And it was.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Listening Post on China's "Soft Power"

This first part of this week's episode focused on China: the situation with media freedom in the country and, what the Listening Post called, its "Soft Power" efforts abroad.

China's international broadcaster, CCTV International (or CNTV), has been in the spotlight in the West, and especially in the US, for a couple of years now, just like "Chinese soft power" in general. And, despite all the Chinese efforts, they seem to be having great difficulties in getting to the general American public. The channel is very new, however, launched in the end of 2009, and it still remains to be seen what its impact and/or real popularity can be.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

May 17: IDAHO in Armenia

No, not the U.S. state...

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

An Armenian NGO - Public Information and Need of Knowledge [PINK Armenia] - dealing with public awareness and sex education campaigns, LGBT rights among them, was to mark the day with a wider set of events. They had declared May 2012 LGBT month in Armenia, which includes conferences, training sessions for journalists and NGOs, and a "Diversity Week" in the end.

This is a much-needed discussion in Armenia, a country which, according to a recent report by ILGA-Europe, "does not meet the basic requirements of human rights standards" in terms of LGBT issues. Furthermore, in a 2011 survey, PINK Armenia found that 72.1% of the population in Armenia's largest three cities have a negative attitude towards LGBT persons; 70.9% said they are "strange people"; 18.6% still think it's a "disease"; the vast majority (55.3%) said they would stop any relationship with a friend, relative or colleague if they found out they were LGBT; and 71.5% suggested that the state "should fight against them".

Clearly, there is [just a bit of more] room for education and awareness...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Europe Day in Yerevan, Armenia

Last year I had the opportunity to attend the Passport DC and Europe Day "embassy open house" events held (now annually) in D.C. Unfortunately, I had to miss them this year as I am currently back in Armenia for a relatively short visit. I was very excited to find out, however, that Europe Day was going to be commemorated in Yerevan, as well. So I decided to spend the afternoon there, with a camera, documenting Europe's cultural diplomacy in an "Eastern Partner" country.

[Click on photos for larger view]

Although the venue chosen for the events was the newest, yet (arguably) the ugliest street in downtown Yerevan - Northern Avenue - and despite the gloomy weather, it was very nice to see some bright colors all around.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes"

The Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) at American University, held a very interesting event on Saturday, April 28: a symposium on "Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes". Given my interest in the subject and the impressive line-up of speakers, it was an event not to be missed.

The title already speaks for itself, but here are some of my observations and thoughts on what was said during the symposium (I really hope that the proceedings will be put online for further access).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New Paper on Russian Public Diplomacy

The readers of this blog know of my special interest in and fascination with Russia and Russian public diplomacy. I have blogged on the subject the most and it was also the focus of my Master's capstone project last year. However, my published papers dealt with other subjects in the past, namely Turkish public diplomacy and Hizballah's media strategy. And now, finally, I have something out there that is more systematic and "academic" on the subject of Russian PD, as well.

"Selective Processing: A Strategic Challenge for Public Diplomacy. An Alternative Approach to Russian Public Diplomacy in the United States." Gnovis Journal, Issue II, Spring 2012, Volume XII

ABSTRACT: The information age has made public diplomacy an integral component of statecraft. In essence, public diplomacy is transnational and cross-cultural strategic communication that aims to inform and engage foreign publics. Yet, developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have also made it much more difficult to overcome the cacophony and noise, especially in contexts where the audience is not predisposed to listening in the first place. Therefore, there is a need to approach the challenge through alternative communication strategies, incorporating them into the overall nature as well as specific techniques of any public diplomacy strategy. This analysis looks at the case of Russian public diplomacy in the United States, where, even twenty years after the end of the Cold War and various public diplomacy initiatives, public attitude towards Russia is still largely negative. The paper posits that selective processing of information is a potential explanation and suggests relational and network-based approaches to improve the effectiveness of Russian public diplomacy in the US.

This was based on a paper for a communication theory class I took, and one of the building blocks of my final project. Yet, it is still very much a work in progress. That is especially why I would appreciate any feedback, comments and suggestions.

Image from Demotivated Pictures

See the rest of the Gnovis issue.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The World Tomorrow": Episode 1

So, Assange's much-anticipated TV show on Russia Today finally had its debut on Tuesday. I guess I'll just cite the (awesome) opening paragraph from The Guardian:
It was billed as Julian Assange's "explosive" TV debut. The choice of word was perhaps unfortunate given that the first guest on Assange's much-hyped interview show, The World Tomorrow, was Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia militant group Hezbollah.
The Kremlin propaganda channel Russia Today has exclusive initial rights to the show, broadcast for the first time on Tuesday around the world. 

This pretty much reflects the attitude with which it was received by most of the Western media.

No matter what the West thinks of Assange, the show, the hosting TV network or the interviewee, however, this was a significant event for everyone involved. They all want attention, and given the "explosive" combination and all the hype, they were bound to get a lot of it.

Assange wanted to demonstrate - which he barely did - that he can operate outside of his comfort zone. It was indeed a little too awkward to watch... but well, he managed without breaking down in front of the camera. The questions should have been a little better - indeed, I was hoping he'd be more provocative - but  under the circumstances, the event itself was perhaps more notable than the content.

For Nasrallah, and Hizballah in general, this seemed like a great opportunity to make a memorable come-back to the Western media. He hadn't granted interviews to any Western reporters for about six years, but now, his appearance on RT and talking to Assange was clearly meant to send a message. He was guaranteed to get attention from a much bigger number of European and American media, who would most likely sensationalize it (which they did).

He didn't really say much, but he did cover a very broad range of subjects, ranging from Israel, internal Lebanese politics, and Syria to his childhood and religion. Yet again, in this case, Hizballah's initial media strategy priorities - especially in the West - would involve having a voice and a presence, more than anything else. Nasrallah wouldn't need to be promoting a certain view or perspective to a potentially hostile audience, and yet, the airtime he got brought him and Hizballah back to the headlines.

And lastly RT.... which finally got the attention and coverage it was hoping for when trying to get the show in the first place: Since the RT's vision of public diplomacy is rooted in the attempt to counter the Western media hegemony (or, to put it undiplomatically, to stick it to the Americans), this combination of Assange and Nasrallah guaranteed not just sensationalism, but also fulfillment of its objective.

In an ironic and twisted way, this can be said to represent precisely what many in the public diplomacy circles have been calling for: the government (well, RT is as governmental actor here) providing a platform for other actors to interact and engage in dialogue. This was a blunt demonstration of that, perhaps.

It was clear that RT Director Margaria Simonyan was interested primarily in the attention the story got elsewhere. She hyped it up on twitter, asking her followers to guess who the guest was before the show had aired. She said that "Many would be very, very unhappy" about the guest. After it aired, she posted a very excited tweet showing that "The World Tomorrow" was trending on Twitter worldwide. RT got what it wanted, in short.

Nasrallah will be a hard act to follow, but I'm sure they have a similarly outrageous [well, for the intended audience, at least] line-up of "guests" for the near future. Whether there will be as much hullabaloo surrounding it again, is a good question, however. They will have to really try.

P.S. - Apparently, the transcript of the interview was translated into Russian and is now available at the website of RT's host "company" - InoTV.

P.P.S. - To read more about Hizballah's media strategy and their attempts at winning hearts and minds, see my paper in the Journal of International Service.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

They're trying. So what?

The Armenian Ministry of Diaspora launched a new "online portal" on March 13. It's called "The Virtual Museum of Armenian Diaspora."

Unsuspecting onlookers can probably see this as yet another "noble" attempt by the Republic of Armenia [the Country] to connect with the Armenian communities around the world [the Diaspora]. After all, "diaspora diplomacy" is one of the strongest assets the Country has on the international arena.

The problem is, public diplomacy with the Diaspora is not working out all that well.

I do not know any of the background involved in this story. I don't know who came up with the idea, or when. How was it implemented? I'll just share some of my first impressions after briefly clicking through some of the links and pages.

Firstly, the site opens à la 90s: with a scary, over-edited pomegranate and horrible music (by the way, the track is called "The Song of the Armenian"). Then, color and the design... They are bad (anything brighter, without the grey background, please?). I like the idea of the changing pictures in the header. But, couldn't they just use better quality images? Those seem like they've been taken from a random Google Image search with no regard to the size. If this is such an important project - which it should be - why is it that difficult to invest some time (or money) in getting original, high-quality photographs? There are many great photographers around the country...!

But that's just the very first impression. Then, of course, you are taken to the Minister's "Greeting Speech". The Armenian version is fine (note: here I'm not yet referring to the content itself). But, what about Western Armenian? The Eastern Armenian used in the Country is not the language used by the majority in the Diaspora. Doesn't the Ministry of Diaspora know this? The Ministry recognizes (or accepts) only one Armenian language - theirs - implying to the majority of the Diasporans that the conversation, even if there is one, will take place on the terms dictated by the Country.

The Russian version of the greeting is OK, too. But then, there's the English translation... Not only does it sound horrible, it is also very bad - mostly verbatim and often wrong. My initial guess was that it was taken directly from Google Translate, but then, seems like someone did edit it. Yet, their command of English is very poor and makes it all sound pathetic.
"We shall do everything to make the web-site interesting and cognitive, to reflect the phenomenon of Armenian Diaspora with its rich palette and deep essence..."


Then, there's the content (we're still on the "greeting" part). Too much tautology and demagoguery, but that's Armenian official-speak. Beyond that, there is the last part that caught my attention: "With love and sincere expectations...". This is yet another translation-related error (since the Armenian version does not use anything close to "expectations"; I'd rather translate that as "greetings"); but to me, it's more of a Freudian slip. At least they are being honest about what they really want to come out of this project (i.e. one-way flow of resources [rather than mere information] into the Country).

I'll be brief on the rest of the website content (not that there is much, to begin with). The information gathered there is of poor quality. Good to have it all organized and centralized in such way; but again, this does not look like original content. The small info sections on communities are very brief, general, and poor. There are no links to any of the community websites or activities. Clearly, not much research has gone into it all.

Many of the pages aren't there, yet. They have the sections - the page is there - but with no content. The "Links" feature only official organizations, foundations, and ministries. Nothing related to specific communities in the Diaspora.

Again, I do understand the effort. It is an attempt to create a platform for communication between the Country and the Diaspora, as well as among various communities within the Diaspora itself. It is not meant to be a project through which the Country communicates to the Diaspora. They have a separate website for that (that's a whole different story). This intent is also clear form the "greeting speech", where the Minister puts so much emphasis on inviting participation and soliciting suggestions from the Diaspora.

Ms. Hakobyan can surely inspire trust and commitment. Image from PanARMENIAN.

Yet, it is still very official. One has to send in an official proposal to the Ministry's "Working Group", if they want to contribute. I won't even go into the complete absence of any social media. How is the Diasporan public supposed to participate in this "conversation"?

There has already been at least one prominent response from the Diaspora - from an editor of the US-based Asbarez newspaper. Of course, there is politics involved and some not-so-friendly historical background. He also seems to have been personally offended for not having been consulted about the project in advance.  Yet, he makes some very good points.

This blunt Diasporan nationalism is just another example of the rift between the Country and the Diaspora. It is an indication of the ignorance and apathy from both sides about the other, although both seem to be making the effort to say otherwise. The Country needs material (and political) support from abroad, while the Diaspora needs a collection of monuments they can visit in August, when they finally decide they have saved up enough to afford the trip.

They can't even agree on one language...!

They should recognize that the rift exists and work on actively bridging it. That requires true public diplomacy by both of the sides involved. But most of all, it requires humility and willingness or learn and understand: something that has clearly been missing thus far...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Upcoming Eurovision 2012

I shared Efe Sevin's passion for Eurovision... before coming to the US, that is. But since it's such a big deal back in the region, I thought it merits a mention, especially after this week's events.

I suggest you read Efe's posts on what Eurovision is and its "significance". Here, I'll just note that it's a great opportunity for cultural diplomacy and place branding, as well as a venue where national sympathies, "friendships", and priorities are expressed. Inevitably.

Last year, Azerbaijan won the contest hosted by Germany [hmm... I'll be honest and say that they were my favorite], meaning that Eurovision 2012 would be held in Baku.

Not only did this turn the spotlight on Azerbaijan's civil freedoms and human rights record, but it also raised the question of what Armenia - whose citizens, and therefore fans, cannot travel to Azerbaijan - is going to do this year.

Azerbaijan has already started full-scale preparations, in terms of construction of the promised Baku Crystal Hall as well as international PR (or should we say, "public diplomacy"?):

As for Armenia... After much ado, it decided to officially withdraw from the contest this week. But they did so not with dignity and honor, but after much humiliation and ridiculous attempts at cover-ups related to domestic issues. In short: pathetic.

That aside, it was also earlier this week that Russia decided on its representatives in Baku: Buranovskiye Babushki. You have to appreciate this!

I think Moscow might need to start preparations for hosting Eurovision in 2013, again...

And... no pun intended?

Enjoy! :)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On "Putin 2.0"

The Russians will be going to "elect" their president this weekend, and the issue has been rightly getting a lot of attention around the world. Yet, one might claim that there is no real "news" in what many expect to happen, and that it's just the same old "Russian politics done the Russian way". But, since many think that this is something that requires attention, they are - evidently - forced to spice it up a little and cast it all in a "new" light.

Following Joshua Keating's wise suggestion - "Want to spruce up your tired old concept? Put a 2.0 on it!" - there has been a plethora of articles, analysesblog posts, and even events [upcoming, by the way, if you're interested] featuring "Putin 2.0" in some form or shape.

But, since I'm more interested in looking at how the elections battle is actually played out on the "Web 2.0", my focus is elsewhere. If curious to see what's going on on the Russian net, I recommend reading Global Voice's RuNeT Echo section: some insightful reporting and commentary.

Here, I wanted to bring to your attention - perhaps already forgotten - "independent fans" of the current Prime Minister. Remember those who solicited volunteers to "rip" for Putin? Or, the ones washing cars? Well, "Putin's Army" has been especially active lately, producing two music tracks. The first one is said to be their "anthem", while the second - more recent - one is called "Go, Vova Putin!". They also claim to have produced a music video for the latter, but it is currently listed as "private" and cannot be viewed. [Will keep checking and let you know, in case that changes.]

Nonetheless, there was another music video last week. Pretty telling, I believe, in terms of who this "army" is:

Interesting to note that there were tens, if not hundreds of comments to the video, which have, by now, conveniently disappeared.

Sex has been a major part of the Putin and United Russia campaigns - whether official, or unofficial, as in the case above - over the past several months. Suggest reading Luke Allnutt's awesome post on the subject. I guess the only thing I would add was another gem I found on the vKontakte page of the "Putin's Army". It is a poll, asking the respondents' opinion on the "sexiest part" of Putin's body (seriously?!):

Translation [from the top]: eyes; torso; mind; hands; "butt" [verbatim]. Of course, my hope is that the respondents are actually ridiculing the effort; yet, at the rate that this is going, there is no way of knowing for sure...

Then, there was a series of videos produced by a an organization called "Pervyi Raz" [i.e. "The First Time"], encouraging young voters to participate in the elections. The campaign, however, involves young women discussing their anxiety before their first sexual experience:

Here is the second one:

The third video [my personal favorite] shows a young woman getting advice from a fortune teller, who picks up a card featuring Putin with what appears to be a halo:

The comments below these videos did not exude as much love, however... Also, it's worth noting that the English subtitles were provided by the producers, themselves, which suggests that they are trying to attract the attention of foreign audiences, as well (which they have).

There are more "serious" videos, too, warning people about what might come if Putin does not win the elections. They usually paint doomsday scenarios:

And another one, suggesting political vacuum similar to that in Russia in 1917 or present-day Libya:

And yet another one directly linking it all to the Arab Spring and instigation of unrest by the US:

There is, of course, creativity on the opposition's side, as well. (Remember this?) I particularly liked this video, which suggests that Medvedev and Putin are zombifying the population:

Another prominent "protest group" has been "Pussy Riot", a feminist punk band that has been raising eyebrows in the recent months. Among many of the gigs that they held around Moscow was a performance on the Red Square...

... and a punk-prayer at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior:

The Church has currently brought charges against them, accusing them of blasphemy and inciting religious hatred. Clearly, feminists are willing to go a long way for their cause.

Few people doubt that Putin will win the coming elections, even if he is forced to go on to the second round. And although there are many analyses and predictions as to what "Putin 2.0" will bring, one thing can be said for sure: the Internet has played a key role in this election campaign, thus making it all about "Web 2.0".

Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy President's Day

The United States is celebrating its President's Day today, quite a significant and symbolic holiday. And although for most of the Americans it's a day off, logging on to Facebook is not a big deal I guess. Especially in the name of public diplomacy.

I'm specifically referring to a post, earlier today, by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on their Facebook page.

It is an unofficial "production" by an enthusiast, and although the transitions between the portraits of the presidents are a little awkward, I did find it very creative. And well, in a sense, it's a great example of people-to-people diplomacy, simply facilitated by the official capacity of the Embassy.

Another interesting note: the quote from George H.W. Bush (the Senior):
"We don't want an America that is closed to the world. What we want is a world that is open to America."

Way to go.

Read more about the President's Day.


UPDATE: I also stumbled upon this piece, which I thought was a fun read: "George Washington’s Rules for Social Media."



As many of my Twitter followers (and Facebook friends) probably noticed, I spent two days over the last week with the OccupyCPAC crowd - a very diverse group, indeed - doing research (well, and live-tweeting) on their action. The members of the Occupy Movement, together with various community organizations and workers' unions, were protesting the Conservative Political Action Conference (or CPAC) 2012 that took place at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in DC. I ended up with a a lot of material, but did not get the chance of posting it. Yet, better late than never, so, with a week's delay, here it is.

Before I get there, though, I wanted to point out an interesting link - that I found later - between the CPAC2012 and US public diplomacy. Rather, I should say, it's potentially deleterious effect on American public diplomacy, especially in the 21st century. Here's a quick look at an astonishing bouquet, a sample of events from the official schedule:

- "The Failure of Multiculturalism: How the pursuit of diversity is weakening the American Identity"

- "Is the “Arab Spring” Good or Bad for America?"
(Side note: I overheard one of the members of the Occupy movement express outrage over this title: "Why should we care? It's their Spring. Let them decide!")

- "Does Hollywood Still Embrace American Exceptionalism?"

- "CPAC Premiere of A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism. [Starring Newt and Callista Gingrich]"

- "Islamic Law in America: How the Obama Justice Department Is Selling Us Out"

- "Why are U.S. taxpayers spending billions to promote abortion and homosexuality worldwide?"

(I won't even go into the abundance of Reagan-related events.)

And this is just a sample. Of course, one might say that this is typical conservative (Republican?) discourse, particularly during an important election year. Yet, just as they see military spending and staying truthful to the "real American values" as indispensable to national security, the conservatives should perhaps also consider the fact that in the globalized world of the 21st century (where America still wants to be a major power) a little modesty, understanding and inclusion can go a long way in enhancing that security. After all, marines and drones have proven to be a very ineffective tool in the "battle for hearts and minds" -- the primary theater of war over the past several decades (for the U.S., at least).

CPAC, of course, is a matter of domestic politics. However, in the age of Internet and satellite television, this separation between "domestic" and "foreign" has long been wearing off, especially in the U.S. Perhaps the Conservative rhetoric should be made aware of that...?


CPAC 2012 took place at Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. There was an abundance of police and security personnel, in anticipation of a big crowd.

Day 1

By noon, on February 10, the protesters started gathering in front of the hotel. A big inflatable cat appeared soon after the Sheet Metal Workers' Union marched in. It held a cigar in one hand, and was gripping the neck of a worker with the other.

The crowd was diverse. Many had come from other towns - Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, and even Miami - to join the unions and community organizations active in DC.

They were certainly very creative, too.

The 1% Tax Dodgers had come down from New York.

Others were lamenting the state of the housing market:

The youth had more to add:

And a special performance by the protesters from Philly:

A small group of students had apparently managed to get in to the conference hall, before they were escorted out by the police. Their protest was silent, yet they seemed to be saying a lot.

And of course, the protester of the day.

While this was going on for several hours, most of the CPAC attendees were advised against approaching the crowd. Yet, a few came down to engage, under the watchful eyes of the police.

This young gentleman struck me with his confidence about his future. I am not being cynical here.

This went on for a while, and as the protesters started leaving, CPAC attendees decided to reclaim the spotlight.

Many of the protesters were back in the evening, however. Although the numbers were much smaller (while the noon protest had gathered close to a 1000 people, there were only close to 150 later in the day), they were still pretty vocal. This is a group specifically protesting against Wisconsin's Republican Governor, Scott Walker, who introduced drastic cuts in the state budget and anti-labor union legislation when he took over his post in January 2011. The accompanying chant here was "Flush Scott Walker!"...

There were more members of the local Occupy Movement in the evening:

And horses...

This was the only moment I witnessed when things got a little too heated.

Day 2

The plan for the second day was to meet at the Malcolm X park and march to the hotel from there. The most (pleasantly) surprising part for me was that the police actually closed off the street to let the protesters walk (this would certainly not be the case in most of the other parts of the world...).

The weather was nasty - perhaps the coldest it had been in DC this winter - yet the protest had attracted quite a sizeable group. The security would not let them get closer to the hotel.

So they went to the back exit, braving the weather for several more hours, while the CPAC held a workshop on how to "take the Wall Street back" from the "Occupiers".

Meanwhile, across the street, there was a small group of young CPAC attendees, who had decided to stage their own counter-protest.

Can't read what the sign says?

You are not alone. Here is the scene after they were lent a better marker...

To be continued. Perhaps...


You can see more videos here, if interested. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Oh, that Propaganda...

Been absent for a while, again. I guess I could say school has started in full force and all those exams and papers won't give me a break. But before I get into yet another rant, I should probably share a couple of recent videos that raise some good questions on propaganda and the power of information.

Firstly, Al Jazeera's "Listening Post"on the information war over the story in Syria [Part 1].

What is most noteworthy in this piece is the actual fact that Al Jazeera recognizes the presence of multiple perspectives on the story, which are directly related to the "story teller's" interests in the region (of course, the network itself is not free of those certain perspectives, but at least here Gizbert is not claiming they are). I believe this is an issue that has been fully and completely ignored in much of its coverage.

Yes, there are major human rights violations in Syria. Yes, the regime is at fault. But does that mean - automatically - that the opposition is right? Who is "the opposition" to begin with? The rebels inside the country? The self-declared "leaders" abroad?

I believe the same question should be asked about all those external actors that are trying to push foreign governments in this or that way regarding the Syrian issue. Just hating Assad, or wanting him out, does not mean that they are necessarily "good", whether for the Syrian people or for the foreign interests involved.

After all, just as defined in the program, propaganda means "Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view." Being sensitive to and cognizant of these biases and perspectives is an absolute must, especially in such complex and difficult situations.

I'm afraid the information blackout by the regime, as well as the taboo status of the issue in the West are not doing it any good.

If you're curious, here is a peek into what the Russian audiences are seeing on their still much-popular (despite everything) state-run ORT channel. This is the coverage of Foreign Minister Lavrov's visit to Syria a week or so ago:

All those thousands of people in the streets are said to be Assad supporters, thanking Russia for its stance in the Security Council vote. Yeah, why not? Throw in a couple of Hizballah and Palestinian flags, some heart-warming messages from young women, and... you get a nice story.

But again, let us not forget about the "selective perception" factor, which either strengthens or fully undercuts the power of propaganda altogether. In the Syrian case, as noted in the "Listening Post", information coming from one side is all too desirable, and therefore becomes "the accepted truth". On the other side, as the ORT report shows, there are many who would want to (create and) believe the other version of the story.

In short, no matter how you look at it, all coverage of the conflict in Syria corresponds to the above-mentioned definition of propaganda, to a certain extent. We just need to be aware of that.

And speaking of selective perception, I also wanted to point to the guest on Monday night's "Daily Show", Ali Soufan, who has written a book on what I would call the Greater Middle East, "terrorism" and ethno-religious issues in the region.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Ali Soufan
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He is pretty much speaking the conventionally accepted "truth". Please note, while Iran is overrun by "chauvinistic Persians" who want to take over the region - which is a totally non-oversimplified, established fact, if one is to trust the implication here - the situation suddenly becomes "way more complicated than that" when the issue of the killed Iranian nuclear scientists is raised. The contention that Israel was behind these attacks should not be taken at face value and should be considered in its full complexity. Hmm...

Last but not least, kudos to Jon Stewart for pointing out his lack of knowledge about the Nagorno Karabakh war:

"I don't even remember this war. Do they not tell us about wars unless we are doing the bombing? Do we not get to hear about all these other wars that are going on?!"

Well, most probably not... unless it directly relates to your national interest. And even then, you get one of the perspectives, unless you really make the effort.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Alyona strikes back

There it comes - as anticipated. Russia Today responds to Al Jazeera's "attack", while Al Jazeera - not too happy about Asssange's change of heart - snaps back with a not-so-friendly report on that latter development. [And please note, this is noteworthy because AJE had quite a cozy relationship with Assange, at least in the past.]

Here's Alyona Minkovski with her "response", just a couple of days after the Listening Post episode aired:

For the lack of substance to respond with, I guess turning to ad hominem arguments was the easy way out. Alyona obviously likes the attention, and - in line with RT's unofficial mandate - enjoys making "hyperbolic statements" and overextending her grand personality. I just wish it did some good to Russian public diplomacy. But, as it is now clear, she couldn't care less about that part of RT's objective.

And, just if you're curious, here is a quote from Al Jazeera's coverage of RT's Assange deal.

Media analyst Konstantin von Eggert said he expected to see Assange interview Russian allies and anti-establishment guests such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and left-leaning US academic Noam Chomsky.
"Julian Assange is famous for his anti-American and anti-Western views, that is exactly why Russia Today is hiring him as a journalist," said Von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.
"So this partnership is logical... It has nothing to do with freedom of speech or real journalism." 

And, this might be just the beginning...