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Russia: Visa Decision Imperils Peace Corps Programs

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia has failed to renew the visas of almost half the Peace Corps volunteers currently working in the country. Unlike their work in less-developed countries, Peace Corps staff in Russia focus almost exclusively on teaching English and related academic subjects at schools and universities. The organization says it does not know the reason for Moscow's refusal and notes that it has made great efforts to cooperate with the Education Ministry in tailoring its programs to meet stated needs. Russians who have benefited from the courses taught by Peace Corps volunteers seem to agree.

Prague, 14 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty of the 64 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers currently working in Russia have failed to get their visas extended by the country's Foreign Ministry, dealing a serious blow to the organization's Russian assistance program.

The 30 volunteers are halfway through their two-year teaching posts in cities across Russia. But instead of returning to classes packed with eager students next month, they will likely be flying home.

The Foreign Ministry has a stated policy of not discussing visa matters and has refused to comment publicly on the issue. Off the record, some officials have complained that Russia does not need Peace Corps volunteers, who have traditionally provided development assistance to developing countries. Others say Peace Corps staffers -- some fresh out of university -- lack enough experience.

RFE/RL contacted Jeff Hay, the Peace Corps' acting director in Russia, to address those criticisms and discuss the group's mission. RFE/RL also spoke to the Russian director of a school in the city of Ryazan about his experience with Peace Corps volunteers.

Peace Corps volunteers first arrived in Russia in 1993, mostly to advise entrepreneurs on setting up small businesses. Over the years, programs expanded at the request of Russian partners to include training in municipal management, health-care administration, and English-language teaching.

For the past four years, most Peace Corps volunteers that the United States has sent to Russia have been English teachers -- again, at the request of its hosts.

Hay said his organization is flexible to changing demands. Volunteers come for two-year stints, so priorities can be quickly shifted as desired. "The approach that the Peace Corps has taken in Russia is one that was developed with the Russian government. Since 1998, we have been working with the Education Ministry. We formed the program together and the program is designed to meet the needs of the Russian communities that ask for volunteers. The Russian government has expressed interest in increasing English-language resources and business resources to those communities. And that's the program we provide. So if there's an interest in the program going in another direction, then that's something that we would discuss with the Education Ministry and work together toward that direction," Hay said.

According to Hay, just recently, Russia's Education Ministry expressed its satisfaction with the Peace Corps program, saying it appreciated the work done by the American volunteers.

One of the important features of the Peace Corps program is that volunteers are sent to all corners of Russia, from Kaliningrad to Siberia.

Hay said: "They're spread out all over the country. They're in universities, they're in secondary schools, primary schools, and then other educational institutions. They're in small towns, the larger cities -- it really runs the gamut."

Hay also disputed the charge that some Peace Corps volunteers may be underqualified. "It depends on their placement. We have minimum qualifications that we've agreed upon with the Education Ministry, which is either a bachelor's or a master's [degree] and teaching or tutoring experience. Depending on where the placement is, we have volunteers who have finished school recently and folks who are retirees. So someone in a university, obviously, is going to have many years' experience. And someone who has less experience is not necessarily going to be a main teacher, but act as a resource for the teachers at that school and maybe act as more of a native speaker. The sites let us know how they would like to utilize the volunteers, so they're placed that way," Hay said.

Igor Zyazin is director of the Lingua language school in the city of Ryazan, 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow. His institution, which offers evening and after-school language classes, is one of several in town that has requested the services of Peace Corps teachers since 1997. Zyazin said he is very satisfied with the arrangement and confirms that the American instructors he has received more than match the school's requirements. They teach conversational English as well as classes on contemporary American culture. "Language is not something that stays frozen. It changes all the time and we can only find out about modern American English and its many idioms thanks to having a native speaker. Most textbooks were written in the language of the 1960s and 70s, without taking into account any of these issues. You can only truly teach conversational language and surmount the language barrier by being in contact with a native speaker. We've had a positive experience with this over the past few years," Zyazin said.

Zyazin said some 100 students of all ages are enrolled in the Lingua school's English courses. "People come to us with various aims. Some want to learn the language well in order to find better work; some want to learn the language just for themselves; others need it for business or leisure trips; some plan to emigrate to the U.S., Canada or New Zealand. Children study the language here because state schools often don't give you much knowledge. That's why we get a lot of children," Zyazin said.

Perhaps the best feature of the Peace Corps program is that it costs local partners nothing: They only need to furnish the teachers with accommodations, a fact Zyazin also confirms. "They work for free. The only thing we pay for is an apartment. We rent a place for them to live for two years and that is the only expense we have. The rest -- all of the volunteer's work -- is free for us," Zyazin said.

Zyazin said that as far as he knows, his school's American teacher did get his visa renewed for a second year and will be returning for the fall term. Two other schools in the city have apparently not been so lucky, with their instructors preparing to return home after having their extension applications rejected by the Foreign Ministry. Zyazin said that as far as he is concerned, getting rid of the Peace Corps is the last thing the Russian authorities should be doing. "If we speak about Ryazan, there are no native English speakers who could teach apart from the Peace Corps. There are several schools in Ryazan that have invited volunteers where they are working, teaching the language or business skills. If they go, there will be no native-language speakers: none in the universities, none in the state schools, none in the private schools. It would be a big loss, in my opinion. Even for us as teachers, being in contact with the volunteers brings us a lot -- it's a big plus," Zyazin said.

According to Jeff Hay in Moscow, the ties that bind Peace Corps volunteers to their host communities are strong and benefit both sides in the exchange. "The bond between the sites and the volunteers is incredible. The volunteers put their heart and soul into this work and the communities really reach out to embrace them. You know, the technical-assistance part is just one part of the Peace Corps. The other part is the cultural exchange, which is very important now. The more Americans can understand Russians and see a more nuanced [side] of their culture, and the more Russian communities can interact with an American and have those experiences, I think, the better off we're all going to be," Hay said.

As a result of this year's negative experience with the Russian Foreign Ministry, however, Hay said the Peace Corps has decided, regretfully, not to draft any new Russia-bound volunteers for next year.

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