#17 - JRL 7169
May 6, 2003
The FBI: Slamming The Door On Important Russian Friends
By Paul M. Weyrich
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
I know it doesn't pay to get angry in this business. Still, I can't help being angry over a totally unjustified situation. For the past several years, the Free Congress Foundation, of which I am chairman and CEO, has co-sponsored The Russian Forum with the American University in Moscow and Russia House, both run by Ed Lozansky, a former dissident from Soviet days, who is now welcomed by the Putin government.
The conference, which is held in Washington, is divided into two parts. The first deals with business opportunities for investment in Russia and the experiences of American companies that are already operating there. The second part deals with public policy issues of concern to both the USA and Russia, with a special emphasis on forging a long-term strategic relationship between the two nations.
The first couple of years, things worked well. Many Russians came to participate on the various panels but also just to observe the Forum. In some cases the dialogue between Duma members and U.S. Senators about important issues was extraordinary. We learned a great deal, even from some of the old hard-liners who used to be proud Communists, although they now belong to parties that have democratic-sounding names.
Indeed, in some cases these old hard-liners even seemed to be more willing to negotiate on key issues than were some of the young members of the Union of Right Forces, the pro-Western party whose origins are in the group that brought about the demise of the Soviet Union.
Then, last year, only a third of the Russians who applied for visas to participate in the Forum were approved. We understood. It was just six months after September 11. There was increased concern about security. So while it threw our conference into chaos, we didn't make a federal issue out of it. After the conference, we did supply the list of names of those who were denied visas to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) who promised to take up the matter with the U.S. State Department. We never heard another word from Lott.
This year's Russian Forum was held one week ago. Not a single Russian who applied for a visa was approved. There were, I am told, some fifty applicants who wanted to participate in the conference one way or the other. These are not folks off the street, mind you. Some are Russian businessmen. Others are Members of the State Duma. Then there are those who have served in government, such as officials at the National Academy of Sciences. Still others are academics.
The President of the Chechen University was among those whose request for a visa was denied. Because that part of the world is constantly in the news, since the war is still going on there, it would have been very useful to hear from someone who is in the thick of things.
Sure, we had plenty of people who had Russian accents. However, they are Russians who now live here, such as Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation. But the only Russian who came from there was Arkady Murashev, a former member of the Soviet and Russian parliaments, who is a high-ranking official in the Union of Right Forces. How did Murashev get to come? He has a multiple entry visa that is issued for several years at a time. It expires soon and Arkady quipped that he might not be back for next year's conference.
This is an outrage. Is it the fault of our old nemesis the State Department? Well, they aren't helpful. But this time, the State Department isn't the problem. It is the FBI and the Justice Department that is the problem.
Even though most of the applicants have been to America many times, still the FBI insists on reading the files on these applicants before approving visas. They are months and months behind in doing so. Now a Russian has to apply about six months in advance to be assured of a visa. Even then, many are denied for totally arbitrary reasons.
I am all for national security, but as one American participant in the Russian Forum remarked, "A nation which can't distinguish between its friends and its enemies is in deep trouble." Indeed, most of the applicants are known friends of this country who wish democratic-capitalism well. There is no one we know of who hates this country.
While thousands sneak across the US-Mexican border every week and while there are known terrorists lurking about in Canada, hoping to find a way into this country, the place where the brakes are being applied is Moscow. Lozansky tells me that visas are often issued after a conference is over so the invited guest or speaker ends up with a useless document. The group that was going to pay his way no longer wants him.
We told Lozansky that unless this problem is solved, there is no point in our co-sponsoring the Russian Forum next year. We had a couple of really brilliant panels but the audience that should have heard our message wasn't there to hear it. My colleague Bill Lind suggested that if the visa problem isn't solved, then we should have the Forum in Moscow.
As much as I like going there (I have been to Moscow some 35 times, beginning in the late 1980's, with the last time being in the fall of 2000) this problem has to be solved. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL), the Chairman of the International Relations Committee in the House, need to take this matter up with both the State and Justice departments. So should Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and his House counterpart, Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
It is ironic that the theme of this year's Forum emphasized the building of a lasting strategic relationship between Russia and the USA. How is that possible when highly placed, very responsible Russian friends of the West, can't even come over here to discuss the proposition?
I'm still angry but I intend to get even.