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Twitter Diplomacy at Work

December 4, 2013 - Marcin Kosienkowski - Articles and Commentary

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On November 11th 2013, on Polish Independence Day, nationalists marched to the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. They set ablaze a Polish guard station and tried to storm the embassy’s gates. The incident could have complicated the already difficult Polish–Russian relationship. It is possible that the two countries’ foreign ministers—Radosław Sikorski and Sergey Lavrov—may have tackled the problem face-to-face during the Asia–Europe Meeting in India, which they both happened to be attending when the incident occurred. But more likely it was Twitter that facilitated the governments to quickly communicate, present their position and influence public opinion. However, traditional media also played a role here, quoting tweets as a news source.

Twitter screenphoto by Shutterstock

The first to react — at 5:32 p.m., not quite an hour after attack on the embassy — was the Polish Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski (@maw75). He expressed via Twitter “regret over the brawls in front of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Poland” and added, “There is no justification for hooliganism. We condemn this violation of the Vienna Convention.” At 7 p.m. the Russian Foreign Ministry — running two accounts, in Russian @MID_RF and in English @mfa_russia — posted information about the attack and a link to Russian news. No opinion was presented but a message was tweeted by the Polish Foreign Ministry (@PolandMFA – an English account) and Foreign Minister Sikorski (@sikorskiradek), one of the best-known users of Twitter among foreign ministers worldwide. He tweeted an hour later saying that nationalist bandits violated the sanctity of embassies, disgracing Poland in the world.

It was a crime and an embarrassment, he tweeted, and not patriotism. The Russian Foreign Ministry answered Sikorski at 8:54 p.m. with a quote from The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol: “Alexander of Macedon was a hero, it is true. But that is no reason for breaking chairs. The state must bear the cost,” and adding, “and that is all…” This could be understood in a few ways; one of them may be: Mr. Sikorski, you are fully right, it was a crime, but there is no need to make a fuss; Poland will compensate damages and that is all. Curiously, the author quite quickly deleted the tweet, but it could be found on the internet for a few more hours.

Thus, in the aftermath of an international incident, Twitter helped the two governments to tentatively sort out the problem and in certain ways calm the atmosphere down at an early stage. One problem was that the messages from the two Polish officials were written only in Polish. It is certain that they were translated and sent to Moscow by the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, which also re-tweeted the original version of Wojciechowski’s tweet condemning the brawl, but its audience was seriously limited. Interestingly, the tweet by the Russian Foreign Ministry quoting Gogol was written in Polish, a rare exception in its communication via Twitter, which is usually in Russian and English. Another observation resulting from the response to the Independence Day hooligans is that Polish digital diplomacy is highly personalised; individual officials lead it via their own accounts. The Polish-language Twitter account of the Foreign Ministry (@MSZ_RP) just re-tweeted tweets by officials or referred to interviews with them, whereas the English account of the Polish Foreign Ministry completely ignored the crisis, perhaps not wanting it to further publicise it internationally. However, it seems it would be better if the Polish spokesman ran an institutional account with a permanent @User Screen Name and a changeable User Name of current spokesman. It would be more recognizable and more easily transferrable to his successor. As far as Russian digital diplomacy is concerned, institutions – the Russian Foreign Ministry and the embassy in Warsaw (@rusemb_pl) – led it. The number of accounts run by individual Russian officials is simply very limited.

On November 12th, the Polish Foreign Ministry made a statement that generally repeated the message of the aforementioned tweet by its spokesman. The Polish ambassador in Russia was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which expressed protest over the incident and demanded that those guilty be punished and that an official apology be issued. An appropriate diplomatic note was handed over to the Russian ambassador on November 13th during his visit to the Polish ministry. In addition to the apology, the note emphasised that the Polish government was interested in building the best possible relations with Russia. Finally, during that meeting, the Polish authorities expressed their concern at the fact that Russian nationalists had thrown burning flares at the Polish embassy in Moscow that morning, and they demanded a detailed explanation.

However, both sides agreed that these two incidents could not be equated regarding their respective scale and the reaction of the police. The official Twitter accounts informed the public about these diplomatic developments and sent readers to further information on the ministries’ websites and interviews given by officials to traditional media outlets. There was little original content, but it was interesting to those who get their news from social media. Few Twitter users expressed their opinion about the tweets posted by the official accounts themselves. They, both Russians and Poles, primarily criticised the Polish government. It probably encouraged Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski to tweet to the Poles a few times in very informal language, in which he sustained his position and expressed satisfaction with the first guilty verdicts for the Polish rioters.

Taking into account that Poland expressed “deep regret over the violent behaviour and incidents that occurred near the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Warsaw” and Russia apparently did not want to use these events for propaganda purposes against Poland, the tensions between the states eased quite quickly. Twitter was used to prove this point in a less officially sounding, more human way. On November 13th, the Russian Embassy in Warsaw wrote on Twitter: “We are really touched by today’s morning surprise”, and attached a photo of flowers found in front of the building with a following message in Russian: “We are sorry for the bandits. Signed, the inhabitants of Warsaw.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry also posted the photo on Twitter and Facebook. It was shared 398 times and liked 655 times on Facebook. This time the comments were predominantly positive. Maria Zakharova, deputy director of the Information and Press Department, who wrote “Great”, posted the first one: (Zdorovo!). The next day, the Polish embassy in Moscow posted on Twitter a similar photo taken in front of the building showing flowers and a piece of paper with a sentence in Polish: “Forgive us, too.” It attracted far less attention from Twitter users than the Russian photo from Warsaw, but it was retweeted by the Russian embassy in Warsaw.

Finally, on November 15th the Russian embassy sent its Polish colleagues its best wishes on Foreign Service Day (to be celebrated the following day) via Twitter. Marcin Wojciechowski, who did not engage in any discussion on Twitter regarding attacks on the Russian and Polish embassies, answered: “Thank you! We will return [wishes] on February 11th, when Russian diplomacy has its holiday.” The conversation was held in Polish. It could be recognised as a symbolic end of the Independence Day crisis between Poland and Russia despite the fact that the Russian embassy returned for a while to events a week later (posting video from November 11th, filmed by amateur and embassy cameras).

Note: all times were given in Continental European Time.

Marcin Kosienkowski, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science and International Affairs of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. His research focuses on the post-Soviet area and digital diplomacy. Kosienkowski is co-editor (together with William Schreiber and Igor Lyubashenko) of the forthcoming e-book “Digital Eastern Europe” (Kolegium Europy Wschodniej / New Eastern Europe, 2014). 

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