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New York Times
January 16, 2003
New Wariness in Russia Toward Help From West

MOSCOW, Jan. 15 Irene Stevenson, an American labor activist, had lived and worked in Russia since 1989. Late last year, her organization, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. affiliate financed by the United States government, counseled the union for air-traffic controllers as they threatened to strike.

On Dec. 30, when she returned to Moscow after a brief Christmas vacation, she was curtly turned away at the airport and denied entry even though her visa had been renewed a month before. Her name, it seems, is now on Russia's watch list as a threat to national security.

Ms. Stevenson's case might have been an isolated manifestation of Russia's opaque and often capricious bureaucracy, except that it was the latest in a series of moves against American and other foreigners working here. It is a troubling trend, American officials and experts said, that could undermine not only Russia's image as an emerging democracy but also its relations with the United States.

Three days before Ms. Stevenson's return to Moscow, the government announced that it was ending the work of the Peace Corps in Russia, having refused to renew the visas to 30 American volunteers four months earlier, in August. A day after Ms. Stevenson's expulsion, the government announced that it was ending the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's small mission overseeing the conflict in Chechnya.

A spokesman for the Kremlin, Aleksandr V. Machevsky, declined to discuss Ms. Stevenson's case except to say that Russia, like the United States, had a right to deny anyone a visa without explanation. Some officials attributed the actions to wounded pride a feeling that Russia, as a once and perhaps future power, did not need aid from groups like the Peace Corps, whose mission is to assist developing nations.

Similarly, in October, when President Vladimir V. Putin revoked the special status conferred in 1991 on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty the American government radio networks created in the cold war to broadcast news and information officials said that since Russia's press was now free, the Russians no longer needed American-financed networks for independent reporting.

Measures against foreigners appear to be becoming more stringent. On Jan. 7, a German journalist, Gnter Wallraff, was turned away at the airport because, the Foreign Ministry later said, he planned to report on Chechnya, despite having applied only for a tourist visa. The same day, an American official with the O.S.C.E.'s office in Tajikistan, Meaghan Fitzgerald, was turned away as she tried to travel through Moscow to Dushanbe.

The reasons in each case if a reason was given were different, but underlying them all appeared to be a renewed wariness and even outright hostility to what some Russians consider foreign interference in the country's internal affairs.

In the cases of Ms. Stevenson and the Peace Corps, Russia's expulsions appear to contradict the spirit of Mr. Putin's agreements with President Bush to increase cultural and educational exchanges. More broadly, they appear to show that there are limits to Mr. Putin's efforts to torque Russia closer to the West.

"Nobody argues against the necessity of cultural exchanges," said Igor M. Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, an influential research organization here. "But whenever the power feels its sovereignty is infringed, this is when old ambitions wake up."

The government's actions hardly herald a return to Soviet-like isolation. Nor are they unprecedented in democratic Russia, where two years ago a government-induced wave of spying mania swept the country, catching foreigners and Russians alike in a wave of espionage accusations that prompted new restrictions on cultural and scientific exchanges.

Russia has historically struggled with xenophobia and suspicion of the outside world, the product, perhaps, of centuries of isolation and invasions. Officials and experts suggested that the latest moves reflected the latest struggle over the extent to which Russia's leaders should tolerate the surge of foreigners who swept into the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alexander R. Vershbow, the American ambassador, said the United States had raised the incidents with Russian officials. He suggested that the trend, if it continues, could undermine foreign investment and cool the general warming of relations with the United States.

"As more incidents accumulate," he said in an interview, "it's going to have consequences, irritating constituencies in the United States that have supported closer cooperation with Russia."

Ms. Stevenson was one of those. She had arrived in Russia before the Soviet Union's collapse and had stayed. Since 1992, she had led the American Center for Labor Solidarity, which provided educational programs and legal advice for Russia's unions. The organization, financed by the United States Agency for International Development, received $1 million in American funds this year.

Ms. Stevenson expressed doubt that the organization's role in the air-traffic controller's threatened strike was at the root of her visa problem, saying it had been limited to providing a lawyer for the union in a court hearing. The union lost its case in November but staged a wildcat hunger strike for several days in December that led to pay raises.

"Whatever contact we had with the air-traffic controllers is no different than the contact with any other unions," she said.

Of her expulsion, she said, "I keep hoping it is a mistake because I want to get back to my home."

The mood in Russia suggests that Ms. Stevenson may have to wait. Vladimir P. Lukin, the deputy speaker of the lower house of Parliament, said he opposed the decision to end the mission of the O.S.C.E. to work in Chechnya, but he said the international monitoring of Russia's behavior struck many as insulting.

"Such open monitoring has a sense of humiliation for us," he said in a radio interview on Ekho Moskvy, "and you always feel particularly humiliated when there is an element of truth in the fact that you're being viewed as something of a second-class citizen."

Other Americans singled out belong to organizations such as the Peace Corps, Radio Free Europe and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that still suffer from cold-war perceptions, including suspicions that they were arms of American intelligence agencies.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, those suspicions died as policymakers surrounding President Boris N. Yeltsin welcomed all manner of American assistance in the heady days of Russia's emerging democracy. But with the ascendancy of Mr. Putin, a former colonel in the K.G.B., the intelligence services once again wield great influence, and lingering suspicions appear to be resurfacing as government policy.

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