In a 'political divorce' education exchanges are hurt

Fulbright scholar Margaret Williams, teaching at the American Corner in Khabarovsk. Source: Personal archive

Fulbright scholar Margaret Williams, teaching at the American Corner in Khabarovsk. Source: Personal archive

Can Moscow and Washington reset the educational and cultural collaboration to minimize negative implications of their confrontation?

As an innocent bystander to the diplomatic differences between the U.S. and Russia, educational exchanges are facing major cutbacks or have been canceled as pawns in the growing game of tit-for-tat sanctions and finger pointing. Yet strangely, as some venerable programs are cut others thrive in the increasingly relevant field of Russian-American relations.

In September, the Kremlin made an unanticipated - although not entirely unprecedented decision - the cancellation its participation with the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational program. Other cross-cultural education programs between Russia and the U.S. have been closed or have lost funding in the wake of the stalled U.S.-Russia reset, but this influential program, which has brought 23,000 high school students from the former Soviet republics to study in the states - including more than 8,000 from Russia - was not on the radar to be eliminated.

For more than two decades, FLEX has offered scholarships to high school students to travel and attend school while living with a host family in America for one year.

The Kremlin canceled FLEX, because, it alleged, a same-sex American couple encouraged a 17-year-old FLEX participant--and Russian citizen--to apply for asylum on the grounds of facing persecution for being gay if he returned to Russia. According to an official statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the couple then planned on adopting the minor, which would violate the Kremlin’s ban on adoption of Russians by Americans. This contradicts the “moral principles of the Russian society” and the Russian legislature, read the official statement.

Crackdown on educational exchange

Amidst deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, the FLEX program’s closure was preceded by a series of ill omens.  American Councils – a U.S. education NGO that has been implementing many educational exchange programs for 40 years, including FLEX – had been facing serious challenges since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. In April, the organization faced problems with its bureaucratic registration, and Russia’s Justice Ministry ordered American Councils to suspend its operations in Russia.

At the same time, exchanges were also affected by American actions– including the closure of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute, an outlet that fosters U.S.-Russia academic exchange and a proposed $30 million funding cut for the Fulbright Program. Moreover, last year the U.S. Congress announced the withdrawal of funding from the Title VIII Grant Program, that supports regional studies of Russia and former Soviet countries. These programs are touted as the first step toward bilateral partnerships and cultural diplomacy, and by that logic, they should be given precedence in funding and foreign policy decisions.

The current political differences between Russia and the U.S. are hampering the impact of educational and cultural exchanges, argues Stepan Serdyukov, a Russian student who is currently pursuing his master’s degree in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton through another State Department sponsored exchange program, Fulbright. “It’s because all these programs were initially created to work in the other political reality, when partnership between two countries was top priority,” he said. “Yet now, unfortunately, these programs seem to be a sort of wistful anachronism.”   

Margaret Williams, a 2011-2012 Fulbright English teacher in Khabarovsk, Russia, applied to be a part of the program because she realized “that the success of American foreign policy rested on the success of person-to person connections. People from other countries developing mutual understanding and respect on a individual level will lead to improving state relations. Fulbright seemed like a good place to start that.”

Williams took part in a teaching curriculum at Khabarovsk State Academy of Economics and Law called Partners in Learning, which used technology like Skype and webinars to connect Russian university students with their American counterparts. “I wanted it to be a dialogue, with a high premium on participation. I thought they were very successful… students developed language skills to express their views and learned to engage in a foreign language.”

In expressing her disappointment about Russia’s FLEX closure, Williams -  who lives and works in D.C. -  says, “I think it’s a major loss to both of our countries.” Her students who were FLEX alumni, she says, “ were so enthusiastic about their experience in America - their social and language abilities were far superior” to their non-FLEX classmates.

The lasting benefits of her education exchange, says Margaret, are very clear to her. “My initial apprehension about being placed in Khabarovsk for a year was like… ‘what have I got myself into?’ But it was by far and away one of the most enriching opportunities of my life. When people express interest in applying to Fulbright, I strongly encourage them. Nothing ventured nothing gained.”

Academia as a safe haven for exchange programs 

Regardless of the difficult times in U.S.-Russia relations and the crackdown on educational programs, some experts agree that cultural diplomacy through educational exchange is still a possibility, even though now it is much more difficult than before the melt-down in relations.  Alexander Abashkin, the former Director of International  Programs at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy (RANEPA),  and currently  the head of a similar department within the School of Public Policy–one of RANEPA’s major institutions–has been working with international exchange programs for the last 20 years. His experience indicates that, as a lack of understanding grows between Russian and American politicians, there is increased understanding between U.S.-Russia academic communities.

In an effort to provide uninterrupted access to Russian programs, Abashkin outlines RANEPA’s plan to create educational centers in neighboring countries. “We plan to move some of our educational programs with our American counterparts to other countries, for example to Latvia’s Riga, Lithuania’s Vilnius, or elsewhere.”

Currently, RANEPA is discussing collaboration in this format with Georgia Tech University, whose students come to its campus in Moscow, sitting in lectures and studying the language. This summer the program is expected to take place not only in the Russian capital, but also in Riga. RANEPA also has short-term, joint educational programs with Georgetown University, specifically targeting professors and students. Additionally, RANEPA is working with Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo Utah. According to Abashkin, it is one of the U.S. universities with the largest number of students studying Russian. “As I was told by my colleagues from this university, the recent events in Ukraine and the U.S.-Russia political divorce fueled interest toward Russia a great deal,” he said. “That’s why we are expecting a bigger group of students in spring and summer.”

“We need to continue this dialogue with our American counterparts to discuss the current problems and look for the ways of how to deal with these programs,” Abashkin concluded. “After talking to many of my U.S. colleagues I understand that they are likewise very concerned and worried about the future of educational exchanges. There is a lack of understanding of Russia in the U.S., and without collaboration with Russian universities the situation will only get worse.”