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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Peace Corps Sent Packing

The U.S. Peace Corps program has canceled plans to send a new tranche of volunteers to Russia this year because Moscow has moved to kick out dozens of the volunteers already working here, the program's acting country director said Monday.

Russia has refused to extend the visas of 30 of the 64 Peace Corps volunteers who were halfway through their two-year stints, Jeff Hay said.

Hay said the Russian government has given no reason for the visa denials. Several officials contacted in the Foreign Ministry said they knew nothing about it and could not comment.

However, the situation appeared to reflect long-brewing resentment over the presence of a U.S. aid program initially designed to help developing countries. While many communities across the country welcome the Peace Corps volunteers, some officials grumble that Russia is treated as if it were simply another impoverished Third World backwater and that the American volunteers are ill-prepared for their assignments in this former superpower.

"They were going around the world teaching people how to wash their hands and things like that," said Pavel Sedalev, a specialist at the Education Ministry who helps coordinate the Peace Corps program here. "But in Russia, we're not a developing country. We have a certain level of culture."

Sedalev said the volunteers come with no training to teach English or business development, their two primary aims in Russia. "They're absolutely not qualified," he said. "It's one thing to send them to Africa where they need to teach at schools there. It's another thing to send them to Russia where we have special programs. We have to educate them about our teaching methods."

The Peace Corps sent its first volunteers to Russia in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nearly all of them at first were former businessmen and businesswomen who worked as consultants in the Volga area as Russians adapted to a capitalist economy.

By the late 1990s, though, in consultation with the Russians, the Peace Corps switched its mission primarily to English language instruction, keeping a smaller business education component.

The program ran into visa problems last year as well, when visas for 10 volunteers were not renewed. But that came at a time of heightened stress between Russia and the United States, shortly after both sides expelled 50 diplomats in a row over espionage. Since then, the two countries have grown much closer in an alliance forged in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Foreign Ministry this summer denied visas to 17 volunteers in the Far East who for a time were left stranded in China waiting for renewals that never came. Thirteen others, who were working in western Russia, have not received visas, and they plan to leave for the United States in the next few days.

The Peace Corps had planned to send 62 new volunteers this fall, but has abandoned the plans, Hay said.

The volunteers all have bachelor's degrees and many have teaching or tutoring experience, he said. Some of the volunteers refused visa extensions have extensive experience and "it's hard for us to discern a pattern" as to why some are being rejected, Hay said.

The volunteers whose extensions were approved will stay in their posts, but the refusals have left them worried about their security, Hay said. "It makes everyone feel unsettled," he said.

Hay said he has not heard many complaints from the Russians about their preparedness and noted that the Peace Corps program here is tailored to Russia's needs.

"The program in Russia is very different than the one in Africa," he said. "Certainly they're not teaching anyone to wash their hands. ... There hasn't been a complaint from the field."

Some Russians who have worked with the Peace Corps volunteers expressed dismay at the trouble. "Their reputation is excellent," said Ilfat Nurgaleyev, deputy to the international connections minister in the region of Udmurtia, where some volunteers have taught in local schools. "Everybody's happy about their work and preparing requests to invite new volunteers."

Yet he, too, acknowledged unhappiness over the lack of training. "The only thing some people said was [that the volunteers are] not really specialists and they're not really effective. ... They were just language carriers. We would like to have real professionals here."

A former Peace Corps volunteer here said the Russians had a legitimate grievance. "I put myself in that camp -- I was in a business education program. What was I doing in the business education program?" said Jynks Burton, who was among those whose visas were not renewed last year. "I don't know anything about business."

Burton, who remained in Russia and found a job by obtaining a visa independently, said the Peace Corps had not served its volunteers well by sending them here unprepared and not addressing the Russian concerns. "Russia is not a place you can send people with no experience and expect them to be successful," she said.

(WP, AP)