The Kremlin’s decision to cancel the U.S.-funded exchange program for Russian high school students has raised concerns among U.S. Embassy officials, students, leaders of educational exchanges and academics.
The Kremlin suspended the FLEX program: Russian high school students won’t be able to go to the U.S. in 2015-2016. Photo: Reuters
Update: Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed that the FLEX educational program was totally cancelled in Russia. Earlier the officials said about its suspension. While accounting for this decision, Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov alleged that an American same-sex couple illegally adopted a Russian FLEX participant. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been very surprised by the statement. It has not heard about the case and will check this information. At the same time, Russian high school students started collecting signatures for the on-line petition to the Russian authorities with a call to save the program.
After Russian authorities announced the suspension of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational program in 2015-2016, the U.S. Embassy expressed regret.
“We deeply regret this decision by the Russian government to end a program that for 21 years has built deep and strong connections between the people of Russia and the United States," said U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft.
In November 2013, FLEX celebrated its 20th anniversary. For two decades, the program that targets the former Soviet Union brought together about 22,000 high school students from the former Soviet republics, including nearly 8,000 from Russia.
The founder of the program, former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley from New Jersey, who advocated student exchanges some 20 years ago, had expressed his hopes that Russia facing important changes would become a new country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The idea of selecting kids to go to live with an American family for a year is the basic point of the program,” Bradley told in an interview last year that was conducted during the celebration of the 20th anniversary. “The whole purpose of the program was to bring people together and show how basically we are all the same,” he said. “And that should be the continuing objective and, hopefully, be a long-term outcome of the FLEX program.”
According to American Councils for International Education, the FLEX program is one of the most competitive U.S. government exchange programs in Russia – and, in fact, the world – with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. Thanks to the FLEX program Russian high school students visited the United States and had an opportunity to live with American host families, attend high school and experience community life for an academic year.
"These young Russians have served as cultural ambassadors, representing the best of Russia, to millions of Americans throughout all 50 states," Ambassador Tefft said. "The United States remains committed to exchanges and programs that promote cultural ties and mutual understanding between the Russian and American people."
“During the 2012-2013 academic year, over 17,000 Russian high school students participated in the FLEX selection process and 239 of them were selected as winners – a 1.4 percent selection rate,” American Councils for International Education said in a statement. “By comparison, Harvard’s selection rate was 5.9 percent in 2012.”
According to Bradley, the achievements of the program “are represented in the lives of the students who participated in the program.”
For example, Yulia Simonova, a FLEX student in 2001–2002, is an example of the success and importance of the program. Now she works at Perspektiva, a Russian nongovernmental organization focused on people with disabilities.
Simonova, who uses a wheelchair, is helping children with disabilities go to regular schools and kindergartens.
“The FLEX program was not just a great and unforgettable experience for me, but also it was the start of a new stage in my life,” she told at the celebration of FLEX's 20th anniversary. “I learned that people with disabilities should have the same rights, same opportunities as other people. I went to a regular school in America, participated in many different school activities. Most importantly, I started to believe in my abilities and myself. The FLEX programs have made a huge difference in my life and helped me to make my dreams come true. Now I can say that I am truly independent, confident, active, open-mind and a very happy person.”
Elena Sorokina, who graduated from Moscow State University and Syracuse University, participated in FLEX in 2005-2006.
“The program has given me knowledge of cross-cultural communication, international relations, has taught me real lessons in friendship, compassion, open-mindedness and volunteering,” she told Russia Direct. “It has established life-long connections from people from all across the world. I am very saddened that current Russian high school students were deprived of that opportunity. I would strongly hope that this misunderstanding resolves quickly and future generations of teenagers can get this kind of cross-cultural experience.”
Meanwhile, Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov says that Russia is withdrawing from the FLEX program because, he alleges, an American host family violated its commitments in regard to one of the Russian high school students and legalized guardianship over this student.
"As a result of these actions, contradicting to the rules of the program, the Russian teenager has finally stayed in the U.S.," he posted in his twitter
“A child who has a mother in Russia was illegally put up for adoption, and the boy was handed over to a homosexual American couple,” Astakhov said on Wednesday, as quoted by the TASS news agency.
Likewise, Russia’s government alleges that the American side created the situation in which Russian students, adopted by American host families, stay in the U.S. under their jurisdiction. The statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry reads that such a practice contradicts the Russian legislature, including the so-called Dima Yakovlev law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by American families.
At the same time, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been very surprised by the statement. It has not heard about the alleged adoption and will check this information. Likewise, the U.S. Donaldson Adoption Institute doesn't know about this case, as indicated from Kommersant daily.
“The history with the adoption is weird,” Eduard Khakimov, the founder of the website flex-exchange.ru, told Kommersant daily. “The [FLEX] special commission thoroughly selects families, based on the interests, preferences and cultural inclinations of a kid.”
Hitting exchange programs from both sides
Amidst deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, American Councils, a U.S. education NGO that deals with cultural and academic exchange, has been facing serious challenges since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. In April the organization faced problems with its registration, when Russia’s Justice Ministry ordered the Russian branch of American Councils to suspend its operations.
American Councils has been implementing different educational exchange programs for 40 years, including FLEX. It has always followed the rules and Russia’s regulations, according to Carter Johnson, director of the American Councils for International Education in Russia.
For U.S.-Russia relations, it was also seen as a bad harbinger, especially after the 2012 closure of USAID programs and Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents.”
At the same time, recent moves from the U.S. government also indicate that it is losing interest in constructive dialogue with Russia, notwithstanding former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s belief that U.S.-Russia relations and Russia’s exposure to the world should be “nurtured through educational exchanges, peer-to-peer dialogues."
A $30 million funding cut for the Fulbright Program and the closure of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute, an academic outlet that fostered U.S.-Russia academic exchange and mutual understanding, seems to have come at the exact moment when U.S.-Russia relations are seeing a significant decline.
Moreover, last year U.S. Congress announced plans to withdraw funding from the Title VIII Grant Program, which supports regional studies related to Russia, Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union. The program supports U.S. citizens in pursuing language training and policy-relevant research in the social sciences and humanities.
“Cutting off exchange contacts for students and early-career professionals can only result in a further decline in a relationship that remains as crucial for the world today as it was in the past century,” American Councils President, Dr. Dan E. Davidson told Russia Direct in April, expressing his concerns.
Davidson stressed the need for both governments to do everything possible to protect educational and academic research programs from the ebb and flow of political relations between the governments.
Nadezhda Danilova, another FLEX alumna and a student at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), argues that the best current tactic for exchange students is to be as active as possible to prove the effectiveness and importance of these exchange programs.
"We should stick together, implement different projects in Russia and demonstrate the prowess of cultural exchange for both Russia and the U.S.," she said. "We should be the ambassadors of sound democracy. And now it is relevant as it has never been before."
"We will do everything we can to restore the FLEX program as soon as possible," said Davidson.
UPDATE: The article was updated on October 1-2, 2014 to include comments from American Councils' Director Dr. Dan E. Davidson, Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, Eduard Khakimov, the founder of the website, flex-exchange.ru, and the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry.