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Friday, 11 December 2015 12:13

Ethiopia: Enticing the New Generation With Soft Power

By Tibebeselassie Tigabu

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, December 11, 2015 (The Reporter) -- Russia, one of the most influential countries in the world, is known for many things, which ranges from Leo Tolstoy to Vladimir Lenin and vodkas and Russian dolls. Being the largest country in the world by area, with 11 timezones, Russia is a vast array of cultures. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter recently traveled to Moscow, the capital city of the Russian Federation, under a program designed for young professionals.


Mother Russia became a second home for Ethiopians in the 1960s and 70s through literature. This strong linkage is expressed in those who proudly recite Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, "I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity."


This fascination resulted in the translation of Crime and Punishment into Amharic, titled Wonjelna Kitat, by the former Ethiopian Ambassador to Russia, Kassa Gebrehiwot.


Other significant classics by the same author such as Notes from Underground was translated into Amharic entitled Yeserchawu Sir Metatif; Maxim Gorky's Mother into Enat; and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, just to mention a few. Among all these classical giants, Alexander Pushkin, whose statue is erected in Addis Ababa, is a source of pride among Ethiopians. His lineage traces itself to Ethiopia on his great grandfather's side. Pushkin also embraced his African side by writing a novel ostensibly based on his grandfather's experiences by relating to his 'negro' identity entitled The Negro of Peter the Great.


The revolution of the Bolshevik Party is part and parcel of the struggle in the 1960s; Red Square symbolizes a space where revolutions happened. The then generation is familiar with the Czar Empire and the Romanov Dynasty, but also minimalistic objects such as the Russian kettle and hat are vividly pictured.


Currently, many young Ethiopians are fascinated with Vladimir Putin. His picture with the Virgin Mary in the background touched many Ethiopians' hearts. Furthermore, on October 30, 2013, the business magazine Forbes put Putin at the top of its list of "The World's Most Powerful People".


Russia and its predecessor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), is represented negatively in many parts of the world. To change the image of Russia, the Kremlin designed a strategy called "Soft Power" where part of the program for young professionals is called "New Generation". This program brought together 123 participants from 39 countries. Two people from Ethiopia headed to Moscow to be part of the "New Generation" which was held from November 24-28.


A transit through Istanbul Atatürk Airport is overwhelming; it is one of the busiest airports in the world, serving nearly 57 million passengers in 2014. Compared to Atatürk Airport, Vnukovo International Airport, 28 kilometers Southwest from the center of Moscow, is much more calm. Welcoming messages are written in Rusky and we later understood that almost all the things in Moscow are all written in the language.


Many people speak only Rusky, which was difficult to understand when we were detained at the airport for forty minutes. Ethiopians, Egyptians, and, coincidently or deliberately, other Middle Eastern looking passengers who were queuing for passport check were detained. This was resolved for three of us who had invitations and tickets that showed that we were part of the New Generation program.


It was later that we learned the interrogation was caused because a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M warplane near the Syria-Turkey border. Described as a "stab in the back" by President Putin, all Russian media were reporting this story.


In spite of that, the organizers of New Generation were welcoming guests from various countries at Cosmos Hotel. Contrary to the airport encounter, the organizers were warm, carrying the guests' luggage, guiding us to the registration area, and making conversation about the flight. Busy with guests, Cosmos is one of the historical hotels in Moscow.


Located in a vast Green Zone, the hotel was built to serve the 1980 summer Olympic Games which was held in Moscow. Dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the VOKS-USSF Roszarubezhtsentr Rossotrudnichestvo (Soviet Union Friendship Society), many participants from the different corners of the world gathered at the hotel as part of the New Generation.


Divided into English, French, Rusky speaking groups, we went out to explore the 12th century historical parts of Moscow.


The architecture of Moscow is breathtaking, especially Saint Basil's Cathedral, which is a major landmark in Moscow. So impressive that, though the weather was freezing, one might forget the cold.


One of the sites we visited was the Novodevichy Convent. Located in Southwestern Moscow, the convent was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was part of a chain of monastic ensembles that were integrated into the defense system of the city.


The convent was directly associated with the political, cultural and religious history of Russia and was closely linked to the Moscow Kremlin. It was also used by women of the Tsar's family and the aristocracy. Members of the Tsar's family and entourage were also buried in its cemetery. The convent provides an example of the highest accomplishments of Russian architecture with rich interiors and a vast collection of paintings and artifacts.


Strolling around the city, one can observe how Moscow is a hybrid of architectural styles from different periods, symbolizing a very thick storybook. Coming to Moscow, one does not miss Poklonnaya Hill, which is 171.5 meters high. This hill had a key role during WWII in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Other than the hill, there is a victory park, monuments, museums and churches.


The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a white marble church with a golden roof, standing 103 meters high and with a capacity of 10 thousand people, attracts exploring pedestrians. This church traces its history back to the the early 19th century. When the last of Napoleon's soldiers retreated from Moscow, Tsar Alexander I planned to design a neoclassical design to honor Christ the Savior for saving Russia from destruction. Before he implemented his plan, he was succeeded by his brother Nicholas who wanted it to be modeled after the Hagia Sophia, a basilica in Istanbul, Turkey. It took more than four decades to build, but was demolished by the Bolshevik Party (under Joseph Stalin in 1956) and then re-built in 1992 and opened in 2000.


With a history of more than 800 years, the different periods left their stylistic legacy such as the Kievan Rus, the Imperial Period, the Post-Revolution Era who denounced the classical style of constructing, and the Post-War Soviet-Union which is mainly Stalin type of architecture including skyscrapers.


One of the famous buildings that were built by Stalin are the Seven Sisters building of the Soviet era, which includes Ukraina, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, the Kudrinskaya Square building, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main buildings of the Moscow State University and the Red Gates Administrative Building. All the buildings have their unique architectural style and history, but one common thing about the buildings is that they are all skyscrapers, giving continuity to one another.


With the coming of the Bolshevik Party, they revolutionized the architecture with what is termed Constructivist Architecture, which opposes the bourgeoisie type of architecture, and implanted communist values even in the buildings. Even in today's Russia, the style is observed in many parts of the country.


Part of the tour also took us to the magnificent Kremlin Palace for a ballet performance. The Kremlin is inextricably linked to all the most important historical, cultural and political events in Russia since the 13th century, and in that ballet is an important part of Russian culture. Adjacent to the beautifully ornamented St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, and Alexander Garden, it has five palaces and four cathedrals inside the fortress. It also serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation.


The tour guide was calm in dissecting hundreds of years of history and condensing it into a couple of days'. She explains about Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and the renaissance without tiring. It was a lot of information to take in. We walked around a larger than life historic city and around Arbat Street, and we even found Alexander Pushkin's house. Clearly, Moscow has a lot to give visitors which include ice skating. One of Russia's largest ice rinks, which covers an area of 20,000sq.m, is magnificent, especially for those who have the ability to skate.


The 90th anniversary of the VOKS-USSF-Roszarubezhtsentr-Rossotrudnichestvo was held at the President Hotel. Many political dignitaries, political officials, and journalists attended the event. Russia's historic public diplomacy was discussed and many former Russian students expressed the greatness of Russia in Rusky. The public diplomacy is also part of the Soft Power.


Russia's main foreign policy document, which was approved by President Putin on February 12, 2013, devotes a section to Soft Power and its importance to the nation's relationship with other countries. The public diplomacy structure lies in the Kremlin under the direction of the President of the Russian Federation. Federal Agency for Commonwealth for Independent States and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), RIA Novosti, RT News Channel, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the Voice of Russia Radio, the Valdai International Discussion Club, the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund and Russia Beyond the Headlines pursue their mission independently.


But why was Soft Power designed? During the celebration, many organizers admitted that Russia has an image problem. Dmitry Kiselyov, director general of the international news agency, Rossiya Segodnya, believes it is the one-sided portrayal of Russia in the international media. Russia Today, an international news channel, which has international stations in America, provides news in English, Arabic, and Spanish, and also makes documentary films. Kiselyov says that it is also working to counterbalance those stories. All in all, Soft Power aims to re-brand the spiritual and intellectual heritage.


A thesis submitted to the School of Continuing Studies and of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by Jill Dougherty, BA Georgetown University, 2013, states how Soft Power is the lexicon of international relations as well as a strategic objective of many nations.


According to the thesis, the term "Soft Power" was introduced by Harvard University's International Relations Scholar Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power. Nye further refined the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Successes in World Politics, stating that Soft Power is "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideas and polices. "When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced," Nye wrote.


It was expressed in the event that Russia is utilizing educational exchange programs, international visitor programs, language training, cultural events and exchanges, radio and television broadcasting to sell the image of Russia to the international public.


Tracing Russia's history, Dougherty's thesis states that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended the Czarist rule and the soviet communism gave an ideology to the rest of the world. Marxism and Leninism trumpeted a new world in which the working class would rule, and the Communist Manifesto of 1848, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, proclaimed: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, Unite!"


This ideology moved people and was embraced by many. And after the Second World War the eastern block, with Russia at the center, was created. And Ethiopia would eventually join this block.


According to an article entitled: "Is Russia Back? Realities of Russian Engagement in Africa" by Alexandra Arkhangelskaya and Vladmir Shubin, Russia made essential contributions to Africa's decolonization and the eradication of apartheid.


According to many records, Russia supported Ethiopia's sovereignty and provided practical assistance in its struggle against Italian aggression in the late 19th century. It did so not only because of geostrategic interests, but also because of the proximity between the Russian and Ethiopian orthodox churches. When Italy declared its protectorate over Ethiopia in 1890, the Russian Empire was the only European country that refused outright to recognize the Italian colonialist claims. Analysts assert that Ethiopia and Russia are connected with the triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationhood. Emperor Haile-Selassie also visited the Soviet Union in 1959, 1967, 1970 and in 1973.


The Arkhangelskaya and Shubin's article states that by the mid- 1980s, the Soviet Union signed hundreds of agreements with African countries. About 25,000 Africans trained in Soviet Universities in various fields and thousands graduated from Soviet military and political schools. Soviets also trained at least 200,000 specialists on African soil. The Soviet Union made agreements with 37 African countries on technical and economic assistance and with 42 countries on trade agreements.


African countries were not cited as proxy, according to the article. On the contrary, the constitution of the Soviet Union cited the support for the people's struggle for national liberation and social progress as one of the aims of its foreign policy. But these aims crumbled during Post-Soviet Russia, when President Boris Yeltsin dethroned the communist ideology. According to the article, the collapse also led to a shift in Russian foreign policy, which abandoned the global south in general, and Africa in particular, by closing embassies, consulates, and its many cultural centers. After Vladimir Putin took power, the relationship improved and is described as positive. A visit from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Ethiopia last year highlighted the new dynamism of Russia's Africa Policy.


Russia's largely negative international image still takes a toll on investment in the country. As Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev admitted to the newspaper Vedomosti, "investors still have an irrational fear of working in incomprehensible, and sometimes unpredictable, Russia... and they also have a completely explainable distrust of public institutions. Saddest of all, this includes the legal system and law enforcement bodies."


While Russia is improving the level of human-to-human relationships, the New Generation brings vibrant and multi-cultures together. Though, in the meantime, we might be forced to learn a couple of words in Rusky such as spasiba (thank you) and poka (see you).

(*This article was originally published by The Report in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)


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