On Tuesday the United States ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, announced he would be leaving his post in Moscow after the Sochi Olympics. He intends to return to his family in California.
In a tweet, McFaul, who had been ambassador since January 2012, blamed his decision on a “9,000 km commute” to see his wife and children that “just doesn’t work.” But you can predict a lot of people will view his resignation in more negative terms. He was selected as part of President Obama’s plan to “reset” the relationship with Russia, but McFaul’s time in Moscow has been beset with diplomatic issues: the Magnitsky act, gay rights in Russia, the Russian adoption ban on American parents, perceived U.S. support for anti-Putin protesters, Syria, Iran, and many, many more.
To his credit, McFaul’s farewell blog post addressed some of these issues, and strove to emphasise the positive side of the last two years of U.S.-Russia relations. You can read it here, but first, take a look at the address — yes, McFaul was posting to LiveJournal.
If you don’t follow Russian politics, it might look like McFaul’s choice of blogging platform is a symptom of an out-of-touch, 50-year-old former university professor: He might as well be posting on GeoCities. But in reality, McFaul’s choice of platform is actually very astute.
LiveJournal may be moribund in the United States, but it has a big following in Russia. Since 2007 it’s been owned by SUP, a Russian online media company, and it’s estimated to still have 5.7 million Russian users. In many ways, LiveJournal has become the liveliest place for Russia’s online political debate: It’s where opposition activist Alexey Navalny hosts his very popular anti-government website for example.
McFaul’s LiveJournal blog has been very popular itself: His resignation post has 154 comments at the time of writing, and his account has had almost 30,000 comments in total. McFaul made a point of writing in Russian, his audience was the country he lived in, not the country he served for. A recent report from the New Economic School listed him as one of the top 10 most popular bloggers in Russia.
McFaul’s success on LiveJournal echoes his popular Twitter account, which he started two years ago and which has 60,000 followers. McFaul has tweeted almost 10,000 times, and has expressed fondness for the medium. “It’s a medium that offers me great advantages as an ambassador trying to explain our policies to this giant country,” McFaul told Foreign Policy early this year. “I can just go to my computer and talk with a scholar in Vladivostok or to an ecologist in Novosibirsk.” McFaul also runs a Facebook page with almost 9,000 followers.
You have to wonder if McFaul’s social media presence may eventually become the defining feature of his time in Moscow: It certainly seems to be part of a growing trend, as a variety of international leaders including Sweden’s Foreign Secretary Carl Bildt, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and even Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif have found ways to make headlines with tweets. Foreign politicians are now expected to not only have a Twitter/Facebook account, but Sina Weibo accounts are becoming increasingly popular too.
This “social” style of foreign diplomacy carries risks, as McFaul’s sometimes controversial presense reveals — he was criticised for tweeting with Navalny when he first came to Moscow, and managed to get into a spat with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account. But it may prove especially fruitful in Russia, where many citizens view the U.S. with suspicion and a “Cold War” attitude remains on both sides.
As McFaul put it in a tweet way back in 2012:
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