Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Khodorkovsky vs. Kremlin

Despite all the Christmas-related chaos of the past week, I've been trying to keep up - at least, somewhat - with the news, and the one issue that I keep stumbling upon is the Khodorkovsky trial. I just spent more than an hour reading and watching the coverage by various "Western" media, in the hope of formulating some sort of a response or coherent position on the issue. But then, I decided I should just highlight the information battle aspect of this whole issue, which in itself is the story here : Russia's public diplomacy vs. Khodorkosvky's personal PR (and, most certainly, political ambitions).

This is how most of the coverage is framed in the West:

Another piece by EuroNews is even more telling, describing the story as "Kafka-esque" and having "played out with all the drama of a Cold War thriller." (No comment. Seriously...)

Well, I can't really blame the "Western" media, since the Russian authorities are, themselves, responsible for being unable to provide an adequate response given this public diplomacy "crisis". Interestingly enough, as I was working on my research on Russian PD this past semester, the issues of corruption and human rights kept coming up as Russia's most vulnerable Achilles' Heel (there are many more, it's just that these are issues that are constantly on the table) in terms of its perceived image abroad. Not that they didn't know. And now, watching this issue unfold, and the constant allusion to "Russia's totalitarian past", I am having hard time even trying to identify the actual party to blame for bringing up Cold War parallels.

Please note, here I am not referring to the actual trial process within Russia (my familiarity with the details of the case, as well as the specifics of Russia's legal system are far too insufficient for making any fully informed judgments), but rather to the way its portrayal is mismanaged by the Russian authorities. One of the fundamental principles of cross-cultural communication, and public diplomacy in particular, is listening in order to be able to formulate and frame the desired message in a culturally applicable and resonant way. Another basic principle (though often too easily dismissed/forgotten by most international actors) is "public diplomacy by deed", demonstrating that it's not just talk, but also involves real actions and responsibilities.

Khodorkovsky in 1992. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

The Kremlin failed in both of these cases. Knowing, very well, how much this "corruption-and-human-rights" discourse matters for the Western audience (public and political, alike) and having the President himself make these issues as priority objectives to be dealt with, the authorities still decided to go with the trials for the second time. Seemingly, there was also very little effort to effectively put out sufficient information to represent the prosecutors' viewpoint. I don't even want to begin talking about Putin's comments - a show of personal arrogance, nothing more - while he could have just been more diplomatic under the circumstances (he should really start learning from Medvedev!). What is more, the special police have been detaining protesters in broad daylight, and more importantly, in front of the international media, which, given the above-mentioned references to Kafka and the "intelligentsia", provide perfect grounds for non-stated allusions to events such as the Prague Spring.

The problem is, it's not Prague (neither is it "spring," for that matter). And most certainly, Khodorkovsky, who is being portrayed as a saint, currently repenting his past vices, should be viewed in a more realistic light, too. Consider this excerpt from a New York Times editorial:
Mr. Khodorkovsky is no paragon of virtue. He made his fortune through political connections and suspect deals in the early days of Russian capitalism. Later though, as the leader of the private oil conglomerate Yukos, he began to understand that transparency was good for business. He also became an advocate of political reform — and a bankroller of reform causes and candidates — thereby drawing Mr. Putin’s enmity.
(In other words, he had a sudden and unexpected epiphany.)

Obviously, the argument on this side is much better framed (and delivered!) by his supporters, and most prominently, by his son. Two days ago, I happened to be watching CNN as it showed the following:

Perfect English. Handsome young man. Speaking from New York. (More than half of the audience already bought it. Guaranteed!)

Emotive. Very culturally appropriate, and most certainly, politically resonant. Oh, and this side does have money - more money willing to spend on the issue than Kremlin seems to be. At the moment, at least. And what does Kremlin do? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends out a spokesman to read out a statement - in the freezing cold - which later gets narrowed down to something along the lines of "Russia tells the West to mind its own business." To provide some context, they put out a small report on Russia Today TV, which, although provides an outlet for the official perspective, lacks audience and credibility, both so vital in this age.

Seems like Kremlin is set to lose this PR battle, but only to a small extent: the issue will remain a stain on Russian-American relations, for example, and yet Washington is reluctant to be making strong statements on the matter (so far, at least). And rightly so. Russia is big country (i.e. democracy, Western-style, might actually tear it apart), the relationship is at a "crossroads" of some sorts, and a lot of thinking should be done before it is all risked for someone like Khodorkovsky. Especially in this case, since there can be no guarantee that he will bring anything better for Russia (or for the West, for that matter) if he (or his supported candidates) actually get to power (remember the joke!). I would truly want to believe that decision-makers abroad understand that.

Instead, the focus - both in Russia and elsewhere - should be on the actual fairness of the system. I am very glad to see BBC's collection of views on the issue from Russians themselves. A quick look shows that there seems to be a general agreement on Khodorkovsky's dark past. Yet, as one reader put it:
It is not a bad thing that Khodorkovsky is in jail. But it is a bad thing that others like him are not in jail.

Might be difficult to change, but that is the problem. Obviously, the Western media beg to differ. After all, that won't sell.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Militainment II: Hollywood, DoD and America's "Force for Good"

Everybody watches movies. We all like movies. Certainly, tastes differ, but I can bet that at least one of the top favorite movies of every person (wherever in the world) was made by Hollywood. The multibillion-dollar industry's power, however, is far greater than its financial might. It's in the business of images: it creates them, frames perceptions, and thus, effectively "manages" the cognition of thousands of millions (would it be an exaggeration if I even say billions?) of people.

So now, imagine the Pentagon actually "directing" and paying for this process.

Earlier this year, I had a post on the same subject, based on a Listening Post episode Al Jazeera had in June. That was, apparently, more of an intro, as Marwan Bishara actually dedicated his last 2010 episode of the Empire to exploring this relationship. It's about an hour long, but this discussion with Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, and Chris Hedges is definitely worth taking a look at:

In case you don't have the time (or desire) to go through it all, here is the opening analytical piece:

What are the issues involved? Well, basically, Hollywood is - more often than not - acting as the Pentagon's PR office both, domestically and (they hope) abroad. So much so, that the Department of Defense even has a special "Hollywood Liaison," or rather, a "Special Assistant for Entertainment Media" within its Public Affairs office (I did actually google "Phil Strub"). And this "assistance" goes well beyond Hollywood per se. In fact, there is a whole "sub-division" in the Pentagon structure, providing assistance in the production of "Motion Picture, Television Shows, and Music Videos" (and, as discussed in my older post, video games). Each branch of the military, in its turn, has its own separate sub-subdivision, with offices in Los Angeles. Obviously, they liaise well.

I stumbled upon a great documentary made in 2003 regarding this very issue: "Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison." I wonder why I'd never heard of it before... Here's the first part (the rest is available at the previous link, as well as on YouTube):

(Just an interesting side note: as I was watching this video, I recognized the Representative from the Navy's Motion Picture and Television Liaison: Joshua Rushing. It so happens that he's one of Al Jazeera's current stars, co-hosting "Fault Lines" - a very insightful program, but not one I'd call "US-propaganda-friendly". I actually looked into it, and here's the story, if you're interested. How ironic...!)

What is the purpose of such "public affairs"? Faith of the people. Support. Funding. Recruitment. Retention. Makes me think back to all these recruitment ads they keep putting out:

Don't all these scenes look painfully familiar from all the great movies we keep watching? (And since I'm a great soundtrack fan, I'd ask you to pay special attention to the music...)

Then, of course, there's benevolence and grandeur:

"Accelerate your life." And needless to say, "Support our troops." But well, at least in this specific commercial - since it's all so positive and fluffy - we see the other side: some of those on the "receiving" end.

Not the case in the following one:

"Power." That's the title of the ad. Fair enough. But "A Global Force for Good"?! Somehow doesn't really go so well with the title, does it? (I should say, I watched "Iron Man" for the first time a couple of days ago - not a great movie; nice graphics, though - and somehow, some of the frames from this commercial just seem to be too similar. What I'm more curious about is which one came first - the ideas for the movie or those for the commercial?)

This takes me to the next part of my post: the role of entertainment (and pop culture) in shaping actual public perceptions and the dangerous implications of such involvement by DoD.

At an age of information deluge, there is what many call "attention deficit": there is just too much information to sort through, attention spans have got much shorter, the public is becoming increasingly less interested in news and/or politics-related issues. It has become much more difficult to find and retain audiences (especially, if the end goal is to "influence" them in one way or another). Hence, there is increasing reliance on "alternative communication" methods, which, among others, include popular culture and entertainment.

This works especially well with movies, which not only provide extensive "narrative transportation" (being drawn into the plot) or "character identification" (actually experiencing the movie together with the characters), but have lots of room for increasingly sophisticated (and oh-so-impressive!) "special effects" and arousing music. Such great play on emotions! As to what goes on at the "subconscious" level... I'll leave it to your imagination.

Yet, as already noted before and as touched upon in the Empire discussion, the images we get from Hollywood either do not show the "other" altogether or, when they do, they often portray them as evil or inferior, in the best case. (Kudos to Said and Todorov...) I cannot not mention Jack Shaheen and "Reel Bad Arabs" here:

One might say that these are "just movies" and entertainment, but as discussed above, they create stereotypes and perceptions that tend to stick. To quote from a very useful book on "imagology":
"...national stereotypes are generally [not only] rationalised by the spector as based on a supposedly objective reality, but also because they tend to be omnipresent in comics, cinema, literature, computer games, public media, jokes and the like, and are constantly though not consciously invoked to confirm one’s auto-image, one’s national identity. Once established, they remain latent in the individual consciousness, or collective mentality, to be called upon when needed."

A greater danger, however, is the effect such "alternative" sources of information can have when the "real" ones either do not provide it, or are being ignored. I am currently reading James Zogby's "Arab Voices" and he has a passage that's very noteworthy here, too:
"... because Americans have so little exposure to the Arab World in school, the influence these pop-culture creations have can be outsized. [...] In fact, in Zogby International's recent survey of American attitudes we learned that the vehicles of popular culture are among the most important sources of information shaping Americans' attitudes about the Arab World."

If the DoD is playing a major role in creating such stereotypes of "the other" (Arab or not), then perhaps they can indeed create the grounds for justifying (indirectly or not) any military action. After all, if "the other" is "de-humanized" and vilified, and if these images become actual public perceptions of that "other," who seems to constantly threaten one's very existence, eliminating that threat can actually be seen as something positive or even desirable. In this case, "the other" does not necessarily need to be an actual, current "enemy" fighting America. As in the case of "300," for example, it can be an evil and "savage Oriental" crowd fighting against a small but brave group of "civilized Western" heroes. (Oh, and don't get me started on Hollywood's persisting images of the Russians...) Remember the subconscious level?

And lastly: there is a whole American public diplomacy aspect to the issue. This is what Empire had to say about it:

It's not a secret that given the might, the popularity, and the reach of Hollywood, in many ways it is the major image of itself that America puts out to the world (even though, supposedly, there is no government money involved; that is, if we don't consider the DoD as a part of it). It's also not a secret that in the current technologically advanced environment one cannot differentiate between domestic and foreign publics; thus, although the major market (and hence, supposed target audience) might be the domestic American one, there are also more than 5.5 billion non-Americans who can - potentially - see any movie at one point or another.

The very same point about images and perceptions discussed earlier should also be seen as applicable to foreign publics' "understanding" of America, too. No matter how hard VOA, RFE/RL or CNN try, "The Avatar" or "Iron Man" will certainly receive more interest and retain longer attention than any news report. In short, in a way, they might also have a lot of "soft power" potential. But while they might have an "awing" effect on most Americans, most of foreign audiences do view them from their own perspectives, bringing in their (direct or indirect) experiences that relate, in one way or another, to the narrative, the plot, or the general theme of the movie. And when it comes to war movies - particularly in the case of war movies - the associations and the selective interpretation will, more likely than not, produce unfavorable, if not negative, perception.

The domestic audience might like the show of power, they might feel reassured and safe (at some level), and they would, certainly, identify with the characters involved. However, one should remember that the foreign audience - particularly the (currently) critically important Arab/Muslim public, whose members also happen to be among the most frequently used "villains" by Hollywood - would inevitably identify with the "antagonist", just because they are "the other."

The receiving end...

And when - as in some cases - the benefits for the "receiver" are overblown and exaggerated (I'll bring the "Iron Man" example, again), it can be much easier for a foreign spectator to spot these exaggerations than for an American one. That is simply because the former has his or her actual reality and many direct experiences to relate to, while for most of the Americans (not all, but most) associations are based on stereotypes and other, similar, movies or pop culture references.

If the experiences the foreigners relate to are not all that positive (especially if they involve experiences with the military), such themes will not only not promote a positive perception of America and its forces, but they can actually backfire, presenting - in yet another way - an image of a belligerent, impatient, aggressive, and arrogant superpower with imperialistic ambitions.

Yes, Hollywood can as well portray Americans as hard-working, freedom-loving, and determined people. But when it comes to sensitive issues, especially those that deal with wars (of questionable justification for many around the world), involving the Pentagon and its agenda not only harms America's public diplomacy objectives abroad, but also puts under fire the very interests of the American people.

But well, since "good" movies are so fun to watch, perhaps they will keep getting away with it?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chaotic Anniversary

Yup, Global Chaos deserves a birthday cake! Friday marked the first year since I started my very own blog, so I decided to write up a quick overview of major developments/highlights of the past 12 months.

I started blogging as a part of coursework for the foundation class in my program, International Communication. The original group blog - SIS 640 Communiacs - soon became an outlet not just for posting the weekly reading responses, but also for various thoughts and observations related to International Communication and international affairs. I guess we all owe special thanks to Dr. Craig Hayden for the inspiration!

Upon the end of the semester I decided to keep writing. After all, I had finally found an area I was genuinely interested in and decided to stick to (anyone who knows me personally will attest to the fact that I'm having great difficulty in choosing specializations - not the best thing, perhaps...) - public diplomacy and strategic communication. I had tried blogging before - twice - but, for some reason, I never managed to keep it up. This time I promised to myself to keep working on it. I incorporated some older posts, including those from the class blog, but made sure to add new ones at least once a week.

Chinese for "Chaos". The definitions of the word range from "unformed matter" or "a jumble", to "condition or place of great disorder or confusion". Whatever the actual meaning, I believe it very well represents our world (at least the one that I've seen so far). Hence, the name of the blog.

I started with some shots from the first DC Snowpocalypse, and writing soon became an obsession. I guess I was also strongly encouraged by the fact that other bloggers and several major blog digests started picking up and linking to some of my posts, increasing the number of visitors. Here, very special thanks go to Dr. John Brown and Global Voices Online, which, I am sure, not only helped attract more readers (and contributors!) to Global Chaos, but also increase their diversity. (OK, I'll thank Dorsey, Williams and Stone, too, for creating something called Twitter.)

As I looked at the map of visitors today, I should say I was pleasantly surprised:

121 countries! (Global chaos, indeed...) Of course, America is the top "source" of visitors, which says a lot about the level of interest in the general subjects/themes I discuss (as well as my actual location and language). Among other top visiting countries are Armenia, UK, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Russia (surprise, surprise!), France and Turkey. Some of the more surprising visits came from places like Mauritius, Laos, Belize, or Tanzania, to name but a few. Why surprising? I never touch upon subjects that would be directly relevant to those countries. Don't you just love globalization and the Internet?!

Seeing the most-read posts also provides useful feedback in terms of pointing out subjects of greatest interest. The most popular post by far has been the one on the Genocide Resolution and Armenia's PD failure that I wrote last March (heh, wonder why..?!). It is followed by "The Illusion of Knowledge", "SALT and the Story Behind It", and "Russian 101: R-Rated PD". This indicates (besides proving - yet again - that sex and controversy sell) that there is interest in a more honest and open discussion, meaning that Global Chaos should, indeed, remain an "UNdiplomatic blog".

RussiaToday TV (RT) is probably my favorite subject of discussion, after public diplomacy itself. I think it's obvious why.

The fifth most-read post was "New Media and Conflict Resolution: Cyber-Utopia?", which later provided the opportunity to join an exciting transnational project that aims to bring the people of the Caucasus together (special thanks to Onnik Krikorian for the invitation and encouragement!). Certainly, being Armenian, I cannot stay away from subjects that involve Turkey and Azerbaijan.

It was also great seeing comments, engaging in discussions, and getting "unofficial" feedback in person. I would only ask for more!

Now, as I hope to start serious work on my capstone project on Russian PD, my posts might keep focusing mostly on issues that relate to Russia and/or the region. However, as mentioned earlier, there are so many interesting things happening around (and so much chaos!), that discussing other subjects and issues would be simply unavoidable.

So, the major New Year's resolutions for 2011 for Global Chaos will be:

- Get readers from Greenland, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan (though, I'm afraid, they might be blocking Blogspot), and the Gambia (why not?!). Help, anyone?

- Write more often. I do enjoy it.

Any comments, suggestions, and contributions are very welcome, as always (exception: those that exhibit nationalism/xenophobia/intolerance in any shape or form). And no, there will be no ads (that's a promise)!

Lastly, of course, thank you for reading. Hope to see you back! :-)


Monday, December 20, 2010

"Bhutto": another pretense of "democracy"

This weekend I got a chance to watch Bhutto, a documentary on Pakistan's former Prime Minister and perhaps one of the world's most prominent female politicians (released earlier this year, but opened in Washington last Friday).

Well made (loved the graphics!). Intriguing. Compelling, indeed. But also, very misleading.

Savior?! In fact, as soon as the movie was over, a friend who watched it with me asked: "So, when is she going to be resurrected?" I couldn't agree with him more. The movie portrayed Benazir as nothing short of a messiah: she was the only hope for democracy in Pakistan.

Indeed, her achievements - especially given the circumstances - were more than just impressive. And yet, it is easy to forget the bigger picture and focus on the positive points, re-framing and often de-contextualizing them. Interestingly enough, for example, while the documentary goes into detail about the imprisonment of Bhutto's husband - Ali Zardari - and the corruption charges against him, there is not even a mention of the corruption cases involving her, personally. How convenient, even if those were just a "smear campaign"...?

The documentary features an impressive list of prominent individuals, ranging from Peter Galbraith, Condoleezza Rice, and Arianna Huffington, to Tariq Ali and even Pervez Musharraf himself. Yet, the story line seems to be mostly dominated by Mark Siegel, who identifies himself as Benazir's colleague (co-authored Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West with her) and friend. He also just happens to be among the producers of the documentary [makes one think...].

Yes, perhaps Bhutto's achievements - in the 1980s - can be seen as unparalleled. Maybe even unprecedented. However, she was not a saint, and the basis of her political power and legitimacy - from the early days of her prominence - was very questionable. Certainly, I'm not an expert on Pakistan, and yet, I would very much recommend going back to several pieces published by Tariq Ali in late 2007, where he explored the grounds of her "reconciliation" with then President Musharraf, and later, the "grotesque feudal charade" that followed her murder.

Now, the Bhutto "legacy for struggle" is transferred to her son Bilawal, who impatiently awaits his return home upon the completion of his studies at Oxford. Or, maybe not? In any case, he is the anointed leader-to-be of Bhuttos' Party (calling it "Pakistan People's Party" - i.e. PPP - is an overstatement), while his father Asif is "temporarily filling in" as President of the country. Sounds like a true democracy!

No doubt, very few major events in the region - particularly, following 9/11 - can happen without the approval (or, at least, knowledge) of the U.S. The fact that nominally "democratic" elections finally took place in 2008 and that Musharraf was made to resign indicates a major fallout between him and his former patrons. Thus, given what followed, "democracy" can be seen as more of a smokescreen, rather than reality in Pakistan. Wishful thinking, in best case. In that sense, the documentary is made by Americans for Americans (OK, perhaps some other "wishful Western" audiences, too).

Yet, despite the seemingly exaggerated progress in Afghanistan, the situation in bordering Pakistan is still very much a concern for NATO. As noted by the 2010 White House review of the Af-Pak strategy released last week:
"Although the global affiliates and allies of al-Qa’ida also threaten the U.S. homeland and interests, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11."

The strategy needs strong action from Islamabad, but the notorious ISI doesn't seem to be helping; on the contrary, they stand accused of supporting the Taliban. Obviously, the governing coalition, and most importantly, the PPP, have not succeeded in making sufficient progress in that direction.

ENTER: Musharraf. Re-enter, rather. He announced the establishment of a new party in October this year, and apparently, is considering to return from exile and perhaps even running for the presidency. The ideology of the party? Errr... does it matter?

When asked by BBC what the party will be standing for, the response was: "Standing for myself." There, he also took a very appeasing line:
"A time has come in Pakistan when we need to introduce a new political culture, a culture which can take Pakistan forward on a democratic path, on a correct democratic path, not on an artificial, make-believe democratic path."

Funnily enough, in another interview just a couple of weeks later, he noted that "there is a sense of despondency spreading in Pakistan," and that a "dysfunctional" government and the threat of terrorism are causing a crisis in the country.When asked who would be the savior, he responded:
"The army can do it. [...] As long as the military exists and is strong, nothing will happen to Pakistan."

Later, he also appeared on Al Jazeera's Frost Over the World:

Obviously, nothing new.

So much for true democratization and commitment to change. All the "back channel" as well as public diplomacy efforts of NATO, and especially those of the U.S., do not seem to be yielding substantial results in terms of reducing security concerns, anyway. Is "Democracy" - Pakistan-style - the only viable answer, again?

[Back to my favorite Soviet joke...!]


Friday, December 17, 2010

Ukraine: the more things change, the more they stay ...

The Ukrainian Rada witnessed another violent brawl yesterday. The problem? Corruption inquiry against Tymoshenko. Surely, a very, very debatable issue.

While such fights in parliaments have become more or less a norm in our troubled post-Soviet region, the Ukraine's case is special. For example, a brawl earlier this year featured eggs, tomatoes and umbrellas. At least this time they limited themselves to chairs and fists.

So much for progress and democracy... and concern for their international image.


Putin talks to the nation

Funny. While Medvedev is talking to the Federal Assembly, Putin is conversing directly with the public. 4 hours 29 minutes. His 2011 televised call-in Q&A session apparently broke all records, at least in Russia.

Questions ranged from the recent racist/ethnic riots, to requests for wedding congratulations. You can read the transcript of the entire session (in Russian) here.

Well done? Certainly, a very good PR move. At home. Abroad, it all seems to have become a matter of ridicule.

Image courtesy of AFP/New York Times.

A quick look at the major English-language media covering Russia reveal the overall perception:

I feel like The Christian Science Monitor provided the only decent and more or less balanced report (from the ones I saw).

New York Times:
In a marathon question-and-answer session that went on for four hours and 29 minutes, Mr. Putin offered a bravura defense of the central control that is a hallmark of his leadership.
The marathon event underlined Mr. Putin’s outsize role in Russia, nearly three years after he stepped down from the presidency. His successor and protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, has articulated a tentative reform agenda well received in the West...
But Mr. Medvedev seems to be shrinking back from bold pronouncements lately, while Mr. Putin is sending a clear message that he is not only running the country, but also operating it manually.
The Washington Post:
"Those people sacrificed their lives to serve the Motherland, and there happened to be an animal who betrayed them," Putin said. "How will he live with it all his life, how will he look his children in the eye? Swine!"
After the 10 agents returned home in early July following a spy swap, Putin met with them and led them in singing patriotic songs.
Putin, a KGB veteran who led the main Russian spy agency before becoming president in 2000, insisted in a recent CNN interview that the agents had caused no damage to the United States.
The article then goes on to talk about Litvinenko and his alleged murder by the Kremlin. Don't you just love the framing?
In another article, BBC also focused on his comments regarding the riots and the spies, and his "defending of the police". Interestingly enough, however, BBC also ran a separate story about his comments regarding Khodorkovsky's case, whose trial is another major point of contention between Russia and the West.

[It seems, however, that most of this "contention" is coming from Europe. In a commentary (translated from French) published by the Guardian, Khodorkovsky is presented as the savior of Russian democracy (and suggested as "Hero of the Year"?!):
This man, formerly the richest man in his country, was accused of tax fraud in 2003 and has been languishing in a Siberian prison for seven years. His crime? To have wanted for his country a true democracy, as well as genuine respect for human rights. Real justice. And to realise this dream, this ideal, he intended to use his immense wealth to support political parties in opposition, which was not a welcome move at the highest level: a man who wants to spread hope has no place in this world. A man with a sincere vision for his country and his countrymen must be destroyed immediately.

Not that Russia is a democratic state, or one with decent human rights record. However, reading such comments sadly reminds me of that old Soviet joke about the potential success of "revolutions": "What if we win again?" Very sad.]

The Guardian had somewhat substantive coverage, too: 
Vladimir Putin grew his cult of personality to new heights during a marathon question-and-answer session today, sending a clear signal to Russia's liberals that they are not welcome in a country where security services rule supreme.
Putin often appeared at ease. One woman wrote to say she wanted justice. Putin read the question and laughed, saying, "we all want justice", before moving on to the next question.

Wow. But well, RussiaToday was there to save the day.

I think even Pravda would've done a better job. Though the last remark is indeed priceless:

Q: Who rules the country while you and the President of Russia are asleep? 
A: We take turns sleeping. Everything is under control. No doubt about that.

Bad public diplomacy. But, who cares, when domestic ratings matter more?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

@MedvedevRussia, Are You Listening? A Story of 6 Months on Twitter

This post originally appeared on RuNet Echo, on Global Voices Online.

It all started with a tweet.

"Hello everyone! I'm on Twitter, and this is my first tweet," wrote Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to Twitter headquarters in Silicon Valley on June 23, 2010. The Russian president created two official Twitter accounts - one in Russian and one in English - in a publicity tour that made headlines around the world. With 2010 coming to a close, we take a look back on some of the highlights of the president's first six months on Twitter.

It was a brilliant public relations play that complemented the President's other efforts to capture opportunities offered by social networking and new media. Within minutes, Medvedev's Twitter account attracted some 1000+ followers. People on RuNet (the Russian internet) responded with intense interest and a flurry of comments and reactions. In the six months that followed, Medvedev successfully managed to engage 147,295 followers on his Russian Twitter account by posting photos, links to news, and even some personal commentary.

View of San Francisco from the President's hotel room. Shared on Twitpic on June 23, 2010, by Dmitry Medvedev

The presidential Twitpic profile deserves special mention as Medvedev often demonstrates his tech-savviness by sharing pictures he takes with his iPhone. Apple should almost be paying him for the publicity.

Medvedev's fondness of Apple products is obvious, pictured here with an iPad at G8 Summit in Canada in June, 2010

It was also a great public diplomacy effort, as Medvedev's English-language Twitter account - aimed at foreign audiences - attracted 61,451 followers and provided for quite some discussions over the coming months in the global public sphere that is Twitter. As noted in June by a popular Russian television host and blogger, Tina Kandelaki:
"If he continues putting up such photos, like the ones after his Twitter registration, the Russian authorities will have a real chance of becoming authorities of which their people are proud. [...] If he continues being as active as he was at the beginning, the emergence of "New" Russia will become apparent not only in Russia, but also in the West."

The President vs. The Kremlin

The fact that the President was initially using @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E (E for English) as his personal Twitter profiles raised some controversy on the blurring of the lines between Medvedev and the official Kremlin. So on November 19, 2010 two new Twitter profiles were created, also called @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E while the original ones were renamed @MedvedevRussia and @MedvedevRussiaE.

According to RIA Novosti, the president is tweeting himself on the new account. Apparently, he wished to enjoy more informal communication with his followers. Meanwhile, @KremlinRussia and @KremlinRussia_E represent "official Kremlin news," as stated in the new profile descriptions. Ironically, @KremlinRussia now only has 10,731 followers and @KremlinRussia_E only 2,193 because the followers remained on the old accounts.

Another rival in this space is the mock Kremlin tweeter @KermlinRussia (note the spelling error) who has close to 52,500 followers and ranks 4th among the most followed Russian tweeters (funnily enough, according to the latest stats from Twirus, @MedvedevRussia is the top "RU Popular Tweep", as of December 14). The mock tweeter, identifies himself as the "Perzident" of made-up country "Roissya".

Unfortunately, no translation can capture the brilliant play of words in the profile description. Intentional misspellings that would otherwise mean "Russia, Forward!" and "Official Twitter account of the Russian President" evoke negative associations. For instance, "Russia, Forward!" is a nod to a notorious article by Medvedev in September 2009 calling for modernization and innovation in Russia. Yet, the way it is misspelled (Роисся вперде), it sounds more like "Roissya is screwed." When Medvedev's Twitter account was renamed, @KermlinRussia did not pass on the opportunity to comment in a series of tweets on the same day:
"Good bye to all who are now with @MedvedevRussia. Hello to all who would never confuse our profiles in the first place."

And later:
"Best business practices: Just a while ago 122,000 followers were transferred from an official state account to a private one. Doesn't this remind you of anything?"

@KermlinRussia is just one among the increasingly prolific mock tweeters in the Russian Tweet-o-sphere, which features mock feeds @PremierRussia (fake Putin) and @Kremlins_wife, but also by the great Russian poet @Alex_Pushkin (1799-1837) and @NikolayII, the last Russian Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918). (My personal favorite, though, is the "Kremlin worm" - @KremlinCherv - who gained prominence after an embarrassing incident in October).

While the Twitter humor is prolific, the satire has also affected wider public political discourse. The misspelled phrase Роисся вперде ("Roissya is screwed") has become the title of an upcoming book by Oleg Kashin, a reporter for Kommersant who was badly beaten in November. The book, which is expected to be released at the end of December, is a fictional story about the land of "Roissya" and is an anti-Utopian account of a society with modernization as its ideology. You can find excerpts from the book in Russian here.

@MedvedevRussia, are you listening?

Early in his tweeting days, President Medvedev was mostly self-referential. Although he established a presence on Twitter, Medvedev (and his PR team) did not seem to grasp the two-way nature of social networking. On the contrary, the presidential Twitpic profile, for instance, was heavily moderated within a day of being launched. After a few controversial remarks and questions, all the comments beneath the photos suddenly disappeared. As Gregory Asmolov remarked on Global Voices, "The era of the Russian unmoderated online democracy lasted less than 24 hours."

Burger diplomacy. Medvedev has lunch with Obama on June 24, 2010 at Ray's Hell Burger. Courtesy of the Kremlin.

Things improved a bit later in fall, when the president (or at least the people behind his profile) apparently noticed the "@Mentions" and "Reply" buttons on Twitter, and started being more responsive. On September 14, Medvedev celebrated his 45th birthday, and congratulations via Twitter poured in by the hundreds. The president duly acknowledged all those who wrote in, and thanked them for their wishes.

Several more interactions followed that made it to domestic and foreign news reports, including one on October 2, which asked whether @KremlinRussia was "real", and received a personal response from the President. Some were birthday-related, while others - more recently - focused on the Belarusian elections. On November 24, venting his frustration over various issues in the country, @garipov_radik tweeted:
"@MedvedevRussia Dm. Anatolievich! Are you reading our tweets at all? Or are we talking to the hand, here? We are, after all, discussing subjects that are important to us. Respond now."

And the response came:
"@garipov_radik I am reading. Thanks for all the suggestions to all of you who write to @MedvedevRussia. I am thinking of using some of these ideas in my address to the Fed. Assembly."

Did he? Here's a tweet from @garipov_radik from November 30, the day of the annual speech at the Russian Federal Assembly:
"@MedvedevRussia Watched the address with the whole family. Were happy to hear my suggestion about the FREE provision of land to families with (many) children. Great!"

I was unable to find any other tweets to suggest that more ideas from Twitter have been adopted in this speech or others. However, the example above does show that beyond gaining purely technical skills, Medvedev is also improving his communication strategy as a whole.

On November 30,  an Armenian news website picked up a story on how a woman with an Armenian-sounding surname had received a response from the Russian president on Twittter.

@inna_smbatyan tweeted:
"Dreamt of @MedvedevRussia today. were having dinner in some dark castle. were talking about Twitter. yeah right..."

Medvedev responded: 
@inna_smbatyan I did not have dinner at all yesterday. Was preparing the address :)

The president's new responsiveness to citizens shows the potential for major transformation in communication for both public relations and public diplomacy purposes. After all, if Holywood actor Ashton Kutcher can, why can't he? (Twitter has been embraced by many politicians and officials in Russia, as well as around the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are 62 international leaders officially on Twitter, perhaps most notorious among them Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.)

Medvedev, who now has four Twitter accounts, is obviously good with iPhone and Twitpic sharing, and even learned how to use the "Reply" button. A good start for the first six months on Twitter? Perhaps. We will have to wait to see whether any substantive action follows his virtual words. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.

On recent violent clashes in central Moscow, where thousands of nationalist soccer hooligans shouted racist epithets, Medvedev tweeted warnings to the perpetrators:
"И последнее - на сегодня. По Манежной. В стране и в Москве - все под контролем. Со всеми, кто гадил, разберемся. Со всеми. Не сомневайтесь."

["And the latest - today. Re: the events at Manezh Square. Everything is under control in the country and in Moscow. We will deal with all those who messed things up. All of them. Don't doubt it."]

He also retweeted two posts from the official @KremlinRussia feed with links to official statements from Kremlin, highlighting the need for discipline and calling for the punishment of  those who incited "criminal acts". The racist responses on Twitter have been fierce.

Will each of the thousands of perpetrators really be prosecuted? Yet, on Twitter, Medvedev seems to appear more like any other citizen, voicing frustration at something he perhaps has limited power to change.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Al Jazeera: One on One with Zbigniew Brzezinski

A great interview with one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. If only more of this made it to the "general public discourse"...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Russia's Got Talent

Putin is back. Not that he was ever gone... but he's posing for cameras and targeting global headlines, again. There were no special sports or martial arts moves involved, no black gear or bikes, and not even yellow cars...

This time, it's music. Apparently, the great Prime Minister of all Russians has been working on his vocal and piano, as well as his English language skills. (In his recent interview with Larry King he mentioned learning English songs with his English-language tutor...!)

Putin played "From Where the Motherland Begins". Photo courtesy of the Online Portal of the Government of Russian Federation.

He got on stage during a charity concert to support the fight against children's oncological and ophthalmological diseases in Russia. He played the Soviet song "From Where the Motherland Begins" - already famously a part of his repertoire - and later even joined the jazz band to sing Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill." The Prime Minister performed the latter to "a standing ovation". The concert, which took place in St. Petersburg's Ice Palace, was also attended by several international celebrities, Sharon Stone, Monica Bellucci, and Gerard Depardieu among others.

Certainly, the desire to raise funds for a great cause is applaudable. Yet, this obvious PR event was also very much an attempt at public diplomacy - personality-based public diplomacy. RussiaToday TV, too, did not miss the opportunity to highlight yet another one of Putin's great talents, of course.

And here is most of the performance itself. Enjoy!

Aw. Isn't he cute?

Some of the international coverage is noteworthy, too. The framing and phrasing is priceless.

Daily Mail Online:
Putin, described as ‘alpha-dog’ in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, is reported to have sung patriotic songs to a group of Russian agents after they were expelled from America in July. But before Friday’s show in St Petersburg, his musical prowess had not been noted.
At the show, Putin also tried to play a Soviet-era song called From Where The Motherland Begins but hit a wrong key and stopped.

Russia's Vladimir Putin, showing his passion for music extends from favourites of spies and cosmonauts to Armstrong, played the grand piano for a room full of filmstars in a concert lasting into the wee hours of Saturday.
He then took the microphone and roused the audience from their seats with Louis Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill" sung in broken English with some piano accompaniment by the jazz band.

And certainly, can't help but point out a recent post in Foreign Policy's Passport, featuring hilarious commentary along with Kremlin-released pictures from an evening Putin and Medvedev spent together in Sochi last week: "Chillaxin' in Sochi with Vova and Dima."

Celeb-style public diplomacy is obviously better than no public diplomacy. The problem, however, is with the reception, and the complete ignorance of the actual reactions and stereotype-perpetuation such attempts are having abroad, especially in the West. Unless, of course, that's the intent to begin with, in which case I cannot but express pity for this "strategy."

UPDATE [12.12.2010]: Just came across this other video from Euronews. Gives a better idea about the audience and other participants, I think...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Article on Turkey's Public Diplomacy Published

My article "Turkish Public Diplomacy: The Genocide Resolution Challenge" was recently published in The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs (free access). I've got to admit - it wasn't all that easy to write. However, I believe academic inquiry should go beyond national - and more importantly, nationalist - interests. In a sense, it was a challenge I set for myself. So no, I have no qualms about it.

I also wanted to thank the organizers of the Conference on Turkish and Eurasian Affairs at St. Mary's College in MD: it was a very informative and engaging discussion (and a very pretty campus!), which I enjoyed very much. Great to see Eurasia and corresponding academic interest in the region coming back from obscurity!

Would appreciate feedback and suggestions.
Also, a request: nationalist and inappropriate comments will be moderated. Thank you.

Abstract: The Armenian Genocide is one of Turkey’s major foreign policy issues and, as such, is among the primary concerns for its public diplomacy efforts, as it strives to counter the information campaigns carried out by Diasporan Armenian communities around the world. In March 2010, the Foreign Affairs Committee at the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a very narrow margin, the non-binding Resolution 252, recognizing the events of the early 20th century as Genocide. The issue threatened to deal a blow to the special relationship between Turkey and the United States, as well as to their strategic partnership. Somehow late to respond, the Turkish government gradually mobilized all its diplomatic capabilities – domestic and Diasporan – in early March, to counter the Resolution at the Committee level, galvanize support from the American public, and ensure the  backing of the U.S. administration to, at least, try and stop the bill from getting to a general Congressional vote. This paper adopts Zaharna’s Information-Relational framework of public diplomacy to analyze and assess these immediate attempts by the Turkish side, and to suggest recommendations for enhancing their relational public diplomacy strategies, especially in terms of the Genocide issue in the U.S.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Adopt an International Student for Holidays

Who said it's bad to be away from "home" for the holidays? It can always be a good opportunity to learn something new about the tradition/culture/history of a "new" place, especially when in good company!

Not that I'd ever celebrate Thanksgiving if I were not in the U.S., but as the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." It's certainly great to receive many invitations for a "warm and yummy evening," but I could not refuse the suggestion to drive almost half-way through the country to... Arkansas, of all places!

My dear friend could not have been a better citizen diplomat...!

So, we went. Here are some noteworthy impressions... from the perspective of a public diplomacy freak.

Flags. Lots of them. Everywhere. Yeah, I never really, truly appreciated flags. But well, they are good symbols. They represent, and tell a story. Here's what I learned about the Arkansas flag:

- AR is the only place in North America where diamonds have been found and mined. Hence, the diamond shape.
- The flag got the 25 white stars, because AR was the 25th state to join the Union. 
- The top blue star in the center represents Arkansas' membership in the Confederate States during the Civil War.
- The other three blue stars represent Spain, France and the U.S.: all the countries that have ruled the land of Arkansas.
(No one's mentioning the the Native Americans, of course...)

Yes. This is the AR State Capitol. In Little Rock. Modeled after the National Capitol, built more than half a century after the one in D.C., with pretty impressive bronze doors, and... very welcoming. Certainly, the need for security cannot be comparable to Washington; and yet, I cannot but mention the welcoming smile of the guard who let us in, despite the fact that it was Thanksgiving day.

Inside the Capitol. Christmas time is here. Yay!

Heh, but of course... We're in Clinton-land!

Fayettville. Formerly Washington. Although the night was frosty, the sunset was very warm.

Thanksgiving! Yeah, missed the Turkey shot. Obviously, we were hungry. These deserve special mention, though. All home made!

The World Peace Prayer Fountain Sculpture in central Fayettville, featuring "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in more than 100 languages. A strong pacifist message!
Couldn't find Armenian. But saw Georgian!

Arguably, America's greatest Public Diplomat! Represented Arkansas for 30 years.

A cute statue in front of the Heifer International Project HQ, Little Rock. Great global outreach, and an integral part of overall public diplomacy. World Avenue in the background.

Hah! Beat that in terms of winning over an Armenian! 6 foreign flags, the second among them Armenian (third from left). They knew I was coming...!

Clinton-land II: The Presidential Library. Unfortunately, it was closed when we were around. Pretty neat-looking building, though. Definitely on the "to visit" list, if ever back in town.

Sneak-peek at the Old State House Museum. Current Madame Secretary's dress from... should be around 1980 some time. Red. Great choice!

Clinton's running shoes: perhaps the most weird item I've seen at a museum exhibit so far. Still, the rumor has it, many decisions are often debated and made while jogging. If only shoes could speak...

..... This was before they came up with the lethal injection. Eerie!

And certainly, the greatest and easiest way of cross-cultural bonding: FOOD. I've got to admit that despite my meat aversion, this beef bbq sandwich will be remembered for years to come. Yeah. We can overcome stereotypes!

To my dear friend: for the thousandth time, thank you for the great week!

And... have any of you invited an international student for Christmas, yet? :)