When Russian diplomacy and social media meet

requeststhepleasureWhen I arrived at the Russian ambassador’s residence in London on October 13, I was expecting a pat-down from tough-looking security guards. Or, at the very least, requests for picture ID.

Clearly my stereotypical perceptions are a bit out of touch as I experienced none of those when I got there on dark Thursday evening. Just a smiling man in a smart suit at the entrance gate with a printed list of names of those invited and expected, and a hand-wave to proceed into the grounds with a short walk to the entrance into the elegant and historic building.

The occasion was what the invitation I received described as a “digital barbecue“: a gathering of “leading British and Russian bloggers and social media experts” (the covering email said) on how governments should be engaging with the web and social media, including two 45-minute panel discussions on “governmental interaction with bloggers and other social media, and on concepts of e-democracy.” I’m reasonably sure that this was the first such event of its type held in London by any embassy.

So I RSVP’d, arrived at the gate and soon joined what looked to me to be about 70 others invited to listen to the panel discussions and join in the socializing that followed with food and drink.

The panel discussions were quite interesting, I suppose, although I found the Westminster bubble focus of much of the opinions expressed to be disappointing (I heard too little about e-democracy and too much anecdotal personal experiences of some of the panelists). Perhaps the most relevant thing anyone said was e-democracy “closes the gap between politician and citizen.” I wish that notion had been expanded upon and explored by the panels.

Still, the conversations and exchanges of views I had after the panels when being social with people were worthwhile. I also had an opportunity to speak briefly with Russian ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko, a most affable and friendly man.

AlexanderYakovenkoAmbassador Yakovenko was a gracious host, introducing the event at the start with a prepared speech that had everyone’s attention. His concluding speech was most interesting, where he said he started tweeting out of frustration over an inability to get the Russian side of the Alexander Litvinenko story out in the UK media.

Litvinenko was an ex-KGB and -FSB officer who was murdered in London in 2006 in a James Bond-esque assassination by polonium poisoning. Fingers have been pointed at Russian government involvement ever since; the case was a major discussion topic during Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent official visit to Moscow.

So at the digital barbecue last Thursday, Ambassador Yakovenko took the opportunity to express his government’s point of view about perspectives on that assassination.

I wondered whether the real point of the evening was to provide Mr Yakovenko with that opportunity. After all, it’s still a hot topic, he’s a career politician and a diplomat – formerly the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation as well as spokesman and director of the Russian government’s Information and Press Department – and we were a receptive audience including political bloggers and mainstream media people.

Plus there was a pre-inquest review hearing about Litvinenko’s death scheduled for October 13 at St Pancras Coroner’s Court which, the Russians said, was “closed for the public and media, thus making it impossible for Russian media and the Russian Embassy’s representatives to attend.” [Development reported by Reuters today: "Litvinenko widow launches appeal for inquest cash."]

Whether all that was a factor or not in why the Russians planned this digital barbecue, I think it was a success in achieving a goal to connect Russian influencers with British opinion-formers who use social media. If such connections are bilaterally nurtured and developed, then we could see some interesting developments in building “opinion bridges” between influencers in these countries where social media plays a useful role in a new diplomacy. Mr Yakovenko said he hopes to do it again next year.

You can get a good flavour of the digital barbecue by checking the Twitter hashtag #digitalbbq and its linked content. And connect with our Russian friends on Twitter:

[Photo above of Alexander Yakovenko by Stuart Bruce.]