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Authoritarian Leaders Embrace Social Media

Among other things, the Uzbek president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has used her Twitter account to show off her favorite yoga moves. (Twitter screengrab)
Among other things, the Uzbek president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has used her Twitter account to show off her favorite yoga moves. (Twitter screengrab)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is posting black and white photos from the 1970s, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is tweeting nostalgically romantic tweets about nightlife in Chechnya, while Uzbekistan's Gulnara Karimova and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are mastering the fine art of Instagram. RFE/RL takes a look at how these autocratic regimes are using (or abusing) social-media channels for their political and personal purposes.

1. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has an active presence on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and, as of a month ago, Facebook.

While Khamenei’s recent arrival on the world's most-popular social network prompted calls for Tehran to unblock Facebook, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, maintained that the Facebook page was a “spontaneous move by Khamenei's fans.” Others have pointed out that the Facebook page was actually first publicized via Khamenei’s official Twitter account.

The page is dotted with images that look like they were taken straight out of his private family album, as well as glossy graphics in both English and Persian. Although Facebook has been labeled a “Zionist” instrument by Iran’s authorities, the page is a silent recognition of the social network’s popularity, which is accessed by millions of Iranians through proxy servers and antifiltering tools.

In this screenshot of Khamenei’s Facebook page, the supreme leader (pictured with glasses) is standing behind Islamic Republic of Iran founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (front with white beard).

2. Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov covers quite an array of subjects on his Twitter account. In just 140 characters, he has alternately praised the Russian press, mourned the death of his grandfather, congratulated a Twitter user on the birth of his child, and fired off quite a few shout-outs, including one to Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s new defense minister.

The tweet below certainly tops them all. Who knew Kadyrov roamed the streets of Grozny at night, nostalgically thinking about the little wonders of life?

"Grozny at night is so beautiful. I rode through the streets. I sat at a cafe. I had a sausage and homemade pasta. There was also aromatic Kalmyk tea with milk. I recommend it."

3. Gulnara Karimova

No social-media list detailing the lives of authoritarian leaders can be complete without a mention of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Karimova was mostly tweeting about her social engagements and posting glamour Instagram shots before she caught the attention of international media outlets by deciding to engage in Twitter spats with some of her critics on the microblogging service, including Andrew Stroehlein, director of communications for the International Crisis Group (ICG). Their interaction (or lack thereof) on Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record was an out-of-the-ordinary reaction from Karimova, leading some to speculate that she is trying to appear more approachable to the international community as part of an effort to present her as a suitable candidate for the presidency.

The tweet below is just a snapshot of the initial fast and furious exchange between Stroehlein and Karimova.

4. Ilham Aliyev

The Facebook pages of politicians are often no more than a visual extension of their official press releases with images akin to the now famous “Kim Jong Il looking at things” blog.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's Facebook page is mostly littered with photos of him and his always stylish wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, at different openings. Nonetheless, in between the photo ops and tributes to his father, Aliyev discovered Instagram just in time for the holiday season. See more here and here.

Aliyev's activity on Twitter, however, is a completely different story. Unlike most leaders who either tweet every day or a couple of times a week, Aliyev’s English and Azerbaijani Twitter accounts come to life on average every couple of weeks and contain his "undiplomatic" musings on anything from Nagorno-Karabakh to the international Armenian lobby, which he refers to as the "enemy."

This particular tweet was taken directly from a speech that Aliyev made just a few days earlier at an anniversary meeting of his New Azerbaijan Party. It makes one wonder whether the president himself is managing his personal Twitter accounts or -- like the Israeli Defense Forces, who got a 26-year-old immigrant from Belgium to run their social-media feed -- Aliyev has hired a social-media genius of his own.

5. Dmitry Medvedev

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev initially took to the Twittersphere in June 2010 with unexpected enthusiasm. After he decided to tweet an official photo of him and U.S. President Barack Obama sharing a hamburger, the tweet became an iconic photo of the United States' reset policy with Russia.

However, the former Russian president's Twitter account was also on the receiving end of some unwanted attention in early December when, in the midst of antigovernment protests, it retweeted a tweet by Konstantin Rykov, a Duma deputy who had posted the following: “Today it became clear that a person who writes in their blog the words 'party of crooks and thieves' is a stupid, c***sucking sheep :)”

Medvedev’s retweet went viral. The original tweet was referencing Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny, who first came up with the phrase “party of crooks and thieves” to describe Putin’s United Russia party. Soon after, the tweet was quickly deleted and the Kremlin press office promised to punish the guilty employee who had apparently interfered with Medvedev’s Twitter feed in the midst of a “password change.”

6. Paul Kagame

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is quite a prolific Twitter user. He may not follow anyone, but he certainly answers back and engages his fans and critics on the microblogging site. His tweets, however, are full of misspelled words, awkward grammar structures, random capital letters, and abbreviations like “alwz,” “powr,” and “bcz.” He has tried apologizing (see the tweet below) but judging by the misspelling of the first word, his point may not have come across quite so clearly.

“Prob” or not, Kagame’s tweets on average receive hundreds of retweets. His Twitter persona seems to be part of a broader effort to embellish his international image as he is increasingly being criticized for cracking down on the opposition and journalists back home. However, all this engagement has not left him unscathed. In May 2011, Kagame and Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of London's "The Independent," got into a Twitter spat after Birell called Kagame a “despot.”

The conversation may no longer appear on Kagame’s Twitter timeline, but the tweet below is a good example of his Twitter persona.

7. Hugo Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was quick to come around to Twitter. Although he initially called a series of tweets against his regime a “terrorist threat,” within three years the self-proclaimed leader of the Bolivarian revolution has since become the second-most-followed leader on Twitter with 3.9 million followers, after Barack Obama.

By encouraging Venezuelans to tweet their concerns to him, the populist leader managed to turn Twitter into a useful public-service tool for his self-styled socialist revolution, routinely assigning ministers to attend to people’s pressing needs. Chavez has been known to tweet frantically on anything from his trips abroad and cabinet shufflings to current events in his own country and the region.

The following two tweets best illustrate the range of content in Chavez’s tweets:

“His energy and lucidity is impressive! It is an example of willpower and revolutionary perseverance! Long live Fidel!”

8. North Korea

There are seemingly countless fake Kim Jong Un Twitter accounts that tweet satirical, witty, and more often than not offensive tweets. One of these is @KimJongNumberUn. This account has more than 211,000 followers and doesn't hold back when it comes to poking fun at anything, from the country’s serious food shortages to its strict censorship laws and Kim Jong Un’s iron grip on the country.

The tweet below says it all:

However, it is actually North Korea’s official Twitter account that has been getting a lot of press lately for following Jimmy Dushku, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Texas who says he has no idea why he is being followed but that he has an “amicable” relationship with @Uriminzok.

Translated as “Our Nation,” @Uriminzok has more than 13,000 followers and mostly tweets praise of North Korea, with the occasional critical comment about South Korea and the United States (which has prompted Seoul to block the Twitter account).

The tweet below is a rough translation of the kind of “poetic” tweets that the North Korean account is sending out.

“Nominated by the people to be the teacher and he believed the people, our Kim Jong Il follows and still lives the eternal life as everyone's bright shining sun above the sky, today and tomorrow. Eternal life.”

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