Central Asia

Russian-US ties strained over Peace Corps
By Hooman Peimani

GENEVA - The Russian government's decision to put an end to the activities of US Peace Corps volunteers in Russia has become a source of irritation in relations with the US.

The Russian government stated at the end of last month that it would not accept Peace Corps volunteers any longer. In an effort to convey the decision in a non-hostile manner, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko expressed his government's gratitude for assistance of the corps, while citing Russia's changing economic and social needs as the main reason for the decision.

Yakovenko stated, "We are holding consultations with the American side on how new forms of partnership could be worked out more in line with today's needs."

The decision was made after some months of exchanging allegations and denials between Moscow and Washington, geared to the Peace Corps activities in Russia.

The director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, suggested that some of the volunteers were spying in Russia. On that ground, he justified Russia's refusal to renew entry visas for 30 of them.

The FSB is the successor agency of the KGB, the intelligence agency of the former Soviet Union.

According to Patrushev, the Peace Corps included "persons who were collecting information on the social, political and economic situation in Russian regions, on officials of governmental bodies and departments, on the course of elections and so on".

Patrushev specifically accused two corps members of espionage. They were the director in the Russian Far East, who allegedly violated a closed zone on the Russian-Chinese border, and a volunteer in Samara who had allegedly sought to establish "close ties with local authorities and the directors of major defense enterprises in the region".

Expectedly, Washington denied all espionage charges. A spokesman for the US embassy in Moscow said that Patrushev's allegations were completely groundless. Along the same line, Mark Toner, a spokesman for the US State Department, said, "We reject any allegations that Peace Corps volunteers were engaged in spying as outrageous, untrue and harmful to the important and difficult work being carried on by PC volunteers globally."

Even prior to the allegations, the Russian government sought to decrease the activities of the corps. In August 2002, it refused to issue entry visas to new volunteers. Four months later, it refused to renew the visas of 30 volunteers out of 64 working in Russia. Also in 2001, it denied visa extensions to 10 volunteers.

Against this background, the Russian government's December 27 announcement did not surprise Washington. In fact, on December 16, the US State Department announced its readiness to withdraw volunteers from Russia, in its reaction to visa denials to and accusations of espionage leveled against them and, perhaps, in its anticipation of the Russian announcement.

Hence, Toner reflected the US State Department's view as he reacted to the Russian allegations. He stated, "We've made clear to the Russian government that if it decides it no longer wishes to continue this cooperation, we will relocate our volunteers to other countries."

The Bush administration's reaction to the announcement has been low key. Seeking to avoid an unnecessary negative impact of the development of US-Russian relations damaged over a variety of regional and international issues, the State Department has so far only confirmed Russia's ending of its Peace Corps agreement with the United States.

The Peace Corps itself has reacted by accepting the decision, while expressing disappointment. In a statement on its website it stated, "At this point the Peace Corps is very disappointed that the work of the volunteers is coming to an end but we respect the right of the host country to make that determination."

In compliance with the Russian decision, the two volunteer groups currently working in western Russia and in the Russian far east will complete their work in the summer of 2003. That will end the activities in Russia involving more than 700 volunteers since 1992, who have been mainly engaged in teaching English and business skills to Russians.

The overall impact of the development may not be very significant on Russian-US bilateral relations. However, the move demonstrates the growing gap between Russia and the United States, as clearly reflected in their pursuit of two different sets of interests in various regions, such as the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and Europe.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

(Inter Press Service)

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