Kommersant interview with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova


“I am surprised when individual posts or comments are sensationalized that much” —

Note: this interview was conducted by Kommersant reporter Elena Chernenko and was published in Russian on July 20, 2018. This is an English translation done with Yandex.Translate with my edits.

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Department of Information and Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (photo by Dmitry Dukhanin for Kommersant)

On July 19, the annual meeting of Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives opened in Moscow. According to Kommersant, during the event (held behind closed doors, except for the speech of President Vladimir Putin), information support of Russian foreign policy was also discussed. Head of the Department of Information and Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova told Kommersant correspondent Elena Chernenko what principle is used when foreign ministries like each other on social media, why the Russian Embassy in London trolls British counterparts, and why the MFA is staying on Telegram.

— A scandal broke out recently after the Russian Embassy in Estonia warned one of the local bloggers that if not for the Soviet soldiers, he could become “at best a lampshade, and at worst — soap.” Earlier, the Estonian blogger compared today’s Russia with the Nazi Reich. At the same time, the Russian Embassy said that their response to him — although it was published on the account of the diplomatic mission — cannot be considered official. So, what is the status of “digital diplomacy”?

— I am surprised when individual posts or comments are sensationalized that much. Look, in Europe monuments to Red Army soldiers are being demolished, and many of those monuments are not just tribute to the history, soldiers are actually buried there! Does anyone care about this except for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and our embassies, Russian Military Historical Society and a few activists? After all, the “progressive public,” “creative class” are silent, including most bloggers and civil activists, there is no hype around this, and then suddenly such emphasis is placed on a single comment? Why there is no similarly heated discussion on social media of the egregious situation in Yemen, where hundreds, if not thousands of civilians are killed every day, where the humanitarian situation is simply catastrophic, and we are talking about the survival of the whole people? Why don’t journalists and bloggers write about it and instead spend their time inflating far less important stories? Of course, discussing funny pictures and individual phrases is much easier.

— I am interested not in the scandal in Estonia per se, but whether one could consider statements in the accounts of individual diplomats or diplomatic missions as the official position of the Foreign Ministry?

— I didn’t get into the details of this story. But in general, the logic is as follows: if this comment was published from the official account of the Embassy or the account of a person authorized to communicate with the press, then it can be considered official. If a diplomat posted something on his personal page, it is not an official comment. It’s simple.

— The phrase about “lampshade and soap” was published by the official account of the Russian Embassy in Estonia.

— I do not see the need to react to this, there were no insults or distortions. It is more important to draw attention to things that are really egregious, such as the abandonment of the Russian language in the Baltic countries where it is spoken by a significant part of the population, such as the already mentioned demolition of monuments to people who gave their lives for the sake of the life of Europe, such as the rewriting of our shared history.

And it is necessary to remind everyone that 75 years ago there were enterprises in Europe that produced lampshades from human skin so that this does not happen again.

— There’s a lot of talk about it, too. I still want to understand the phenomenon of digital diplomacy. Your comments on social media — are they equivalent to statements that you make at briefings?

— My Facebook page is my personal account. Yes, it has a verification check mark on it, because I am a public person, but this is my personal page. At the same time, I can’t “divide myself” into time intervals on the principle that “from 9 AM to 6 PM I make official comments”, and at 6:15 I stop being an official representative of the Foreign Ministry, because it is already non-working hours. This strict division ended with the advent of the revolution in the information environment and media. In fact, we stopped dividing ourselves and our time into personal/non-personal. There are, of course, still very personal topics such as family, vacation, health, etc. But the public already claims, asks for, and sometimes demands reporting on how, where and with whom you spend your personal time.

I had a very interesting experience in the United States. When I came to New York for a long-term posting for a job at the Permanent Mission to the UN, I had to get many documents to live in that country, including opening an account in a local bank. When filling out the questionnaire, I reached the question “are you a public person?” Realizing that my work involves publicity, I honestly replied “yes.” It took me two months instead of one week to get a debit card. It turns out that even if you use a bank card, for example, in a grocery store on weekends, from bank’s point of view, a person does not stop being a public figure and is associated with the trust that this institution granted her by opening an account.

— And were there cases when your higher-ups criticized you for a particular post? You or other diplomats?

— There were routine questions, we regularly carry out feedback sessions. It happened a couple of times that, so to say, not the best materials were published in official accounts, we analyzed them on a rolling basis.

— British media regularly pay attention to social media activities of the Russian Embassy in London. According to journalists, Russian diplomats often use Twitter plainly for trolling. Does the Embassy act in coordination with Moscow?

— After such figures as (former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom — Kommersant) Boris Johnson appeared on the horizon of diplomacy, reproaching the Russian Embassy in London for trolling someone is not serious.

Our diplomats only react to what they hear. You see, they didn’t set that tone in our relationship. We are interested in building a completely different relationship with the United Kingdom and the British people than we have now. But London doesn’t want that. By escalating anti-Russian hysteria, the British authorities distract the attention of citizens from accumulated problems and pursue geopolitical goals. For example, they needed to reduce the number of fans who could come to Russia, to compromise Russia’s efforts in Syria in the context of chemical [weapons] issue, there was also an international provocation around the “Skripal case.” In this situation, it is necessary to analyze not the tweets of the embassy, but what was the reason for their publication.

— I’ll ask about the tweets anyway. Twiplomacy has released a study, which shows that the official Facebook account of the Russian Foreign Ministry liked 97 pages of other countries’ diplomatic agencies but did not like pages of the U.S. State Department, the White House, and British Foreign Office. Is it accidental?

— No, we do this on the basis of reciprocity: we offer other ministries to “be friends” [on social media], if they accept our proposal — we respond. This is a matter of agreement between press services.

— That is, you have not agreed with the Americans and the British?

— As for Facebook — we have not agreed: there is no interest in interacting with us in this social network on their part. Even though we have tried several times to bring them to cooperation: liked some of their posts, mainly concerning bilateral visits. But the response has been silence. However, on Twitter we follow each other with the Foreign Office. The U.S. State Department, unlike their Embassy in Moscow, does not reciprocate on Twitter as well.

I take this opportunity to once again address our American colleagues: we are open to cooperation.

— So, to sum up the discussion about digital diplomacy, we can say that it has a hybrid status and many of the rules are written on the go?

— In principle, work in social media is the scope of agreements within the organization or corporation in which you work. As a rule, this issue is regulated by internal regulations. When pool journalists fly with us, I watch them send news stories to the editorial office, and in parallel share their personal assessments about the trip on social media. It is a matter of agreement of the media outlet with its journalist: whether his employer allows him to do so or not. I know several media outlets in which this practice is not welcome. Other outlets do not pay attention to this, but the employer asks to indicate that this is a personal opinion of an individual, which does not reflect the point of view of the editorial board. In other instances, on the contrary, journalists are encouraged to use their personal means to mention their outlet on social media and promote its brand.

— And how does this work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

— We have our internal rules for social media work, but I would not call them rigid. These are recommendations. Ministry staff should only notify management of the platforms where they maintain accounts. At the same time, according to another internal regulation, only a certain set of people granted with respective authority can speak on behalf of the Foreign Ministry and on foreign policy issues.

— On your Facebook page, you regularly share information not related to foreign policy: where you went for vacation, where you had lunch, and so on. Aren’t you afraid of public condemnation for checking in at a fashionable place, as has happened with Natalia Timakova, Press Secretary of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev?

— I’m not. The case of Natalia Timakova’s check-in cannot be described as anything else but silly bullying. And it is not me trying to protect my superiors — she definitely does not need it. The increasing and much-needed information openness of government officials has been set back for many, many years by this abominable case.

— Well, it is hardly possible to talk seriously about the increasing information openness of Russian officials.

— You know my principle: start with yourself. I am ready to answer every question. It’s my choice to live like this. I want to live as I say, and I don’t want there to be any mismatches between what I say and my life. It is important for me that at any moment I could respond to a question: have you paid for it, you support import substitution and how do you dress, where do you go for vacation. It’s an important issue for me.

— Did you try to convince Sergey Lavrov to create an account on one of social media sites?

— We didn’t try to convince him. Back in the day, we planned Foreign Ministry’s strategy for social media and realized that having a personal account of Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov was impossible. After all, if you do it, it should be a personal story. It should not be accounts that are managed for you by other people. And in his case, with his volume of work, business trips, and many hours of negotiations managing [social media accounts] himself simply would not work.

Official accounts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly quote the Minister and publish photos of events with his participation, answer followers’ questions.

— The last question about Facebook and Twitter: often below the posts of the official accounts of the Foreign Ministry, and on your page, there are extremely negative comments, cursing. How do you decide what to remove and what to keep?

MFA’s Facebook account is moderated by Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff. My colleagues remove nationalistic comments, obscenity and frankly indecent things fairly quick. My page is moderated by no one but me. When I have time, I clean up comments on the same principle. But in general, I’m liberal about critical comments and delete only really indecent posts.

— So, you will not delete a comment with the phrase “annexation of Crimea?”

— No, why should I do that? People can have different points of view. I absolutely do not share this one and believe it is fundamentally wrong. But should then Vedomosti newspaper be banned because it published an article by one professor who was trying to prove that in the case of Crimea it was annexation? We do not live in Ukraine, where the right answer to the question of the nationalists “whose is Crimea?” becomes a guarantee of personal security. I delete illegal, extremely obscene comments and block users if I understand that it is a bot or a person who regularly posts insults. In other cases, I try, if I have time, to engage in dialogue, to explain my point of view. Sometimes people, even those who were initially extremely aggressive, can be persuaded. In my practice there were many such examples.

MFA’s channel is still active on Telegram, a messaging app blocked on the territory of the Russian Federation by the decision of the court. Why?

— I don’t see the contradiction here. What was the court decision about?

— About blocking of Telegram.

— Correct. About blocking the platform itself, but not the channels. We consulted with Roskomnadzor [the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media] and received all the necessary clarifications in this regard. The ban does not apply to work in Telegram itself.

— That is, government agencies have the right to be present on Telegram, despite the fact that the messaging app itself is prohibited in Russia?

— Does the court decision say anything else?

— I’m confused.

— Here’s my analogy. Let’s assume the court decided to close down a store. So? But people continue to visit it, and the store also continues operating. The court decision doesn’t say that people can’t go in and buy something if the store isn’t closed, does it?

— One would expect that state structures would play along and would execute the decision first thing.

— We execute all decisions, this one simply doesn’t apply to us. Should there be additional decisions — of course we will take them into account. For us, the letter of the law is decisive. That is why we consulted with Roskomnadzor in advance. For me personally, corporate ethics is also important: I am a team player and I like to play by the rules. Just don’t turn this into the headline.

— I just thought it would be a good headline. Well, you mean we’re not talking about silent sabotage?

— There can be no sabotage on our part as a matter of principle. Personally, I stopped using this messaging app, just because it started functioning with failures. I use another app. For the same reasons, it has become difficult to manage Telegram channel of the Foreign Ministry, so I do not rule out that we will abandon this site. Already now one can easily follow us on Viber.

In general, I have a negative attitude to anonymous Telegram channels. And I made clear my personal position in this regard long ago. I don’t understand how channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers can be anonymous. How is this possible in a society that is already suffering from the stream of fake news and trying to fight the use of information and communication technologies by terrorist recruiters…

— But there are anonymous channels that do not spread fakes and do not call for jihad.

— I have come across explicit misinformation many times, but at some instances it was about fakes of the lowest rate, crossing all boundaries. For example, when several channels posted bogus stories on the causes of death of Vitaly Churkin (Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN — Kommersant). There were things just beyond good and evil. And there is no antidote against it. All we could do was to count on the decency of journalists and hope that they will turn to us before reprinting this. And I am grateful to many media representatives who do not have sympathy for Russian foreign policy, but at the same time they factchecked these bogus stories and did not publish them — this is worthy of respect.

For me, this case was the last argument in favor of the idea that one should not encourage mass dissemination of information: a) anonymously, b) without the right of reply. It is from all points of view mean and dangerous.

— Question about changes in diplomatic lexicon. Recently, we have seen many examples of how diplomats and other officials express themselves not simply undiplomatically, but actually in street slang. Many were surprised by the phrase “Look at me, do not look away, why do you look away,” addressed by a Russian diplomat at the UN to his British colleague. And from your lips one can periodically hear quite expressive statements. Is this a new norm?

— The history of world diplomacy is a depositary of emphatic quotes. As for the phrase you mentioned, compare “do not look away” (said by Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN Vladimir Safronkov — Kommersant) and “Russia should go away and shut up” (the words of the British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson — Kommersant).

— Do you imply that this is a general trend?

— This trend has always existed — you can read memoirs. No, I want to emphasize that these are not equal phrases. The sentence “do not look away” is in fact a concentrated cry of despair. One person calls another to answer: what are you doing, what are you talking about, why aren’t you ashamed, are you aware of what mess you will make now? This phrase is clear to any Russian. It is unusual for the Security Council chamber, where there is usually on place for lyricism and sentimentality.

And the second phrase is an example of rudeness and disregard for the whole country and its people.

The first phrase was addressed to a specific colleague at the negotiating table. Yes, it looked like it did. But the second phrase was said cowardly and meanly, because the man was on his own country’s territory and was saying it, realizing that the people he insulted, will not be able to respond to him personally.

— So, the classical diplomatic language as a phenomenon can now be buried?

— No, of course not: the language remains. It’s just that something extraordinary always gets more attention. And if previously this debate was not available to the mass reader and was recorded in historical literature, now everything is happening online.

As for the traditional language, every day tons of verbal ore, as [poet Vladimir] Mayakovsky said, are processed in the traditional diplomatic genre. From dawn to dusk we publish opening remarks, speeches, statements at press conferences, answers to questions and interviews, but it is routine, and few people pay attention to it from the point of view of language. But one phrase in a different genre sparks a massive public outcry. It seems to me that this confirms that the classic language exists and remains the norm: if it did not exist, then these phrases would not stand out so vividly. They would become routine, and no one would pay attention to them.