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Transnistria’s Model of Facebook Diplomacy

September 18, 2012 - Marcin Kosienkowski - Bez kategorii



Government actors in the field of foreign affairs, especially in the western hemisphere, are paying much more attention to digital diplomacy. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office offers a simple definition of the term: conventional diplomacy through a different medium, namely the internet. Interestingly, the new government of Transnistria, a quasi-state situated in the European part of the post-Soviet territory and a tiny breakaway region of Moldova inhabited by no more than a half million people, is also developing its own digital diplomacy.

Transnistria’s intensive usage of the internet, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The campaign team behind the incumbent Transnistrian president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, appreciated the strength of the internet during the 2011 presidential election, and it is believed that the use of online social networks contributed to Shevchuk’s unexpected victory over Igor Smirnov, Transnistria’s seemingly unshakable leader, who had been in power for the previous 20 years.

A model diplomat

A case in point of Transnistrian digital diplomacy is the activity of it’s foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, on Facebook, the most popular worldwide social networking site. Shtanski’s Facebook diplomacy first of all distinguishes itself by its high interactivity with other users. She not only posts to her Facebook wall but also engages in discussions.

As an example, Shtanski was recently involved in a rather curious online chat with a lecturer from a university in Chișinău, who suggested that the Transnistria should display the flag of Moldova next to its own, as a sign of respect to Russia, Transnistria’s patron. Moscow officially supports Moldova’s territorial integrity and considers the Transnistrian region to be part of Moldova. The Transnistrian minister’s answer was firm and, of course, negative; although it was also polite. Admittedly, comments on Shtanski’s wall can only be posted by her Facebook friends, but anyone can send her a message and it is quite likely that they will get an answer from her.

Shtanski’s activity on Facebook allows for the wide and yet inexpensive dissemination of information about Transnistria, its stances and policies. Among her 1,800 friends, there are diplomats, journalists and researchers from around the world who are interested in the region. Furthermore, her profile is open to the public and, thus, available for numerous users of Facebook. This is quite significant taking into account that Transnistria is a quasi-state which is not internationally recognised, doesn’t have any embassies, and only has scarce resources to promote itself abroad.

Conversely, the previously mentioned diplomats, journalists, researchers and others, might well be interested in the discussions which take place between Shtanski and representatives of the Transnistrian opposition. This frequent discourse gives some extra insight into the political situation in Transnistria. However, the main obstacle to the dissemination of information about Transnistria through Facebook is the fact that Shtanski exclusively uses Russian as her language of choice.

Nevertheless, the use of Facebook by the Transnistrian foreign minister ensures the speed of the flow of information, and quite often a message is transmitted faster via Facebook than it is through diplomatic channels or the mass media. Shtanski doesn’t part with her account, even while on holiday. Speed of information is an important factor, given the contentious nature of the conflict between Transnistria and its parent state, Moldova, and the internet could be used, for example, to ease tensions quickly.

The start of this kind of diplomacy, however, were not too promising: when a Moldovan citizen was fatally shot by a Russian peacekeeper on January 1st 2012 at a checkpoint between Transnistria and Moldova, the then recently-installed Transnistrian authorities were silent for two days. They later offered condolences to the family of the victim and called on Chisinau not to politicise this tragedy, as it had triggered public outrage in Moldova. Shtanski used her Facebook account to spread this message. In early June 2012, when the Moldovan mass media reported that a dozen or so businessmen from Moldova weren’t allowed to enter Transnistria – casting doubt on Shevchuk’s policy of normalising relations with Moldova – Shtanski (and Shevchuk) denied the claims almost immediately via Facebook.

The personal touch

Transnistria’s digital diplomacy has been humanised due to Shtanski’s activity on Facebook. For many non-diplomats, Facebook posts are better received than official announcements or information produced by the quasi-state’s informational institutions. Furthermore, by posting messages about her personal life and putting up private photos, she becomes a diplomat who is more personalised, relatable and close to the people. Additionally, given that 35-year-old Shtanski looks like a fashion model, it is no exaggeration to say that she contributes greatly to the improvement of Transnistria’s image abroad.

All in all, Transnistria’s Facebook diplomacy powered by its foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, looks remarkably better than the diplomacy practiced by Moldova. This is even more clear given that Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk also runs his own Facebook account, although it is far less interactive and filled with less content on foreign affairs, and has been closed to the public view. Shtanski’s counterparts from Moldova – Foreign Minister Iurie Leancă and one of his deputies, Natalia Gherman, as well as the deputy prime minister in charge of Transnistria’s reintegration, Eugen Carpov – don’t have Facebook profiles at all; while Andrei Popov, another deputy of the foreign minister, as well as Prime Minister Vlad Filat and the Moldovan president, Nicolae Timofti, have profiles (Timofti only has an official presidential profile), although their walls are very poor in terms of content and lack any discussion between officials and the public.

Moldova is depriving itself of an excellent opportunity to influence world opinion through the new and powerful medium of social networks, while Moldovan politicians seem to be detached from people outside of their social and political strata. And as a result, Transnistria seems to be gaining a clear advantage in the struggle with Moldova within the virtual arena.

Marcin Kosienkowski, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. His research focuses on the post-Soviet area, mainly Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria. Kosienkowski is co-editor and author of Moldova: Arena of International Influences (Lexington Books, 2012) and the author of The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic: Survival Determinants [Polish] (Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, 2010).

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