|Russian-US ties strained over Peace
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.
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."
was made after some months of exchanging allegations and
denials between Moscow and Washington, geared to the
Peace Corps activities in Russia.
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.
FSB is the successor agency of the KGB, the intelligence
agency of the former Soviet Union.
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".
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant
with international organizations in Geneva and does
research in international relations.