#7 - JRL 7009
January 8, 2003
THE PEACE CORPS IN RUSSIA: WHO'S HELPING WHOM?
By Vladimir Kovalev
Vladimir Kovalev is a reporter for "The St. Petersburg Times" in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Kremlin's decision late last month to end a 1991 agreement with the United States on the work of Peace Corps volunteers in Russia seems to be the latest manifestation of "spy mania" among high-ranking officials in the Federal Security Service (FSB). The announcement came just days after presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District General Viktor Kazantsev declared that representatives of the Red Cross assisting displaced persons from Chechnya are also engaging in espionage.
Throughout 2002, the Kremlin waged a campaign aimed at chasing out the Peace Corps that combined numerous public statements complaining about the professional capabilities of volunteers with both general and specific allegations of spying. During a meeting with journalists on 15 December, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev foreshadowed the abrogation of the Peace Corps agreement by saying that two volunteers were accused of espionage in 2002 and that 30 volunteers were denied visa extensions in August for the same reason. When the visa decision was announced, officials had declined to specify the reason for the measure.
Judging from Patrushev's statements, though, it would seem that the volunteers would have had to ignore everything going on around them in order to avoid spying charges. "[They] were collecting information about the sociopolitical and economic situation of the regions," Patrushev said, "about members of official bodies, about the course of elections, etcetera."
Valerie Eban, the former head of the Peace Corps Far Eastern office, was one of the two volunteers specifically charged with spying. Patrushev said she violated the country's border regime "by penetrating a closed area along the border with China." In other words, Eban fell victim to the Soviet-era institution of a so-called pre-border zone, a 50-100-kilometer-wide territory along all of Russia's borders that even Russian citizens are theoretically allowed to visit only with special permission.
Likewise, Eban's colleague in Samara was expelled for meeting with the wrong people. According to Patrushev, this volunteer -- who was identified only by the last name Brown -- was a former CIA agent "who in the 1970s recruited military servicemen in Berlin [and who] was establishing contacts in Samara with local officials and managers of major defense enterprises."
Both cases illustrate an alarming trend in FSB practice in recent years. Under the guise of being proactive or preventing harm to Russia's national security, security officials have been focusing largely on tracking down those they think intend to commit a crime, rather than those who have actually done so. The Brown case is reminiscent of the charges on which military journalist Grigorii Pasko was convicted in December 2001. In Pasko's case, the indictment read that he "had the intention" of handing over classified information to a Japanese journalist.
The FSB has apparently had considerably more success in determining the intentions of Peace Corps activists and journalists than in divining those of the terrorists who seized more than 700 hostages in Moscow in October or who exploded two car bombs on 27 December at the administration building in Grozny, killing at least 80 people.
Unfortunately, the psychological conditions necessary for the spread of spy mania in Russia are still widely prevalent. Most people still remember the days when every foreigner entering the country was viewed first of all as a potential spy.
"I'm sure that xenophobia also had a role to play, as we were often asked if we were spies and were known to be watched closely by the FSB. Several volunteers served in areas where foreigners (especially from the West) were still almost unknown and not trusted," wrote Matthew Lister, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Ryazan, in a letter to Johnson's Russia list on 15 August.
Lister's letter was prompted by a seemingly well-organized media campaign in August charging that Peace Corps volunteers are incompetent. The Education Ministry released to the media letters from provincial officials and residents claiming, among other things, that the volunteers are "former cooks, bicyclists, and Mormon priests."
"The authors of the complaints argued that representatives of the Peace Corps who gave English-language lessons to secondary-school students had no teaching experience and spoke very little Russian, or did not speak Russian at all," Nikolai Dmitriev, head of the Education Ministry's international cooperation department, told AP at the time.
"My daughter cheerfully announced that they are going to have a real American working as their new English teacher," wrote Yekaterina Zolotova from Voronezh in a letter quoted by utro.ru. "A couple of weeks later, she was not that excited. It turned out that Kevin Ebert, the so-called Peace Corps volunteer, is not a linguist, but a guitarist. The students are bored and not interested in his lectures. My daughter found out...that the American was dating one of his students."
Other letters released by the ministry charged that volunteers were researching UFOs, smoking marijuana, and drinking with their students. While releasing these letters, the ministry did not say a word about the roughly 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have worked in often-difficult conditions in Russia since 1992, teaching English in villages in the middle of nowhere or trying to instill the rudiments of management in a country where the word "biznes" has its own meaning.
The culmination of the anti-Peace Corps drive came on 27 December when the Foreign Ministry announced the annulment of the 1991 agreement. "Russia is grateful for the assistance provided by the U.S. Peace Corps and values the experience of cooperation that we worked out," Yakovenko was quoted by Ekho Moskvy as saying. "Now, though, because our economic and social goals have changed, we are engaged in consultation with America to find new forms of cooperation that would be more up-to-date in the current situation."
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to join Peace Corps to help other people improve their lives. "To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves," Kennedy said. Now, in Russia those efforts to escape "mass misery" have been stymied because the FSB claims a volunteer wandered somewhere within 100 kilometers of the Chinese border.