AFTER Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao announced that her organization would send volunteers to Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, the United States government agency received 1,400 calls a day, three-fourths of them from Americans interested in working in the former Communist empire.
Ms. Chao has been at the helm of the US government's leading international volunteer organization for just five months, but she's quickly realizing a dream envisaged by Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver back in 1961.
"For 30 years," Chao says, "Sarge advocated extending the Peace Corps' hand of peace and friendship to countries behind the old Iron Curtain."
Responding to what she describes as "urgent cries for assistance," Chao will send 250 American volunteers to the former Soviet Union this year to help develop what Americans do best: practice capitalism.
In the Baltics, Ukraine, Russia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, whose governments have formally invited the US volunteers, the Peace Corps intends to set up enterprise-development programs that foster business planning, privatization, management, credit, and banking.
Chao says that, while the institution "in the past has been known for building irrigation systems, today's Peace Corps volunteers will also be known for building financial, legal, and distribution systems."
Toward that end, she is recruiting the greatest number of skilled Americans the Peace Corps has ever attracted, including 1,000 highly-trained business professionals, most with graduate degrees.
Former corporate chief executives call to offer their services, Chao says, "but we really need people who have nitty-gritty technical help to offer, and can do so based on their own ingenuity."
When President Bush signed the May 6 agreement with visiting Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk establishing the first Peace Corps presence in the ex-Soviet republics, Ukrainian-Americans comprised most of the audience at the ceremony.
Chao says such ethnic groups offer Washington-based bureaucrats insights concerning popular sentiment in their native lands, such as when the Peace Corps is likely to be approached for help.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who recently returned from the former Soviet Union, welcomes the Peace Corps presence in Ukraine as an important factor in the binding of a strong bilateral relationship between Washington and Kiev.
Chao describes her volunteers as emissaries of democratic ideals and self-initiative, but they will no doubt encounter many obstacles, given the 70 years of communist indoctrination against the American way of life. "Sometimes people ask if the Peace Corps is an extension of American Imperialism," says Chao. "I'm deeply offended by that question." Her family fled Chinese communism and came to the US when she was eight years old.
"Our volunteers demonstrate compassion, trust, and openness," Chao declares. Communism "sapped peoples' hope and made them suspicious," she says. The very presence of Peace Corps volunteers demonstrates freedom of speech and of movement, and offers the best of American values, she adds.
The average cost for starting up a Peace Corps program in a new country is between $500,000 and $1 million - a sum that includes the cost of establishing headquarters, providing supplies ranging from vehicles to chalkboards, and positioning staff at an average yearly cost of $30,000 per individual.
While the start-up costs will undoubtedly run "on the high end" in the ex-Soviet republics, Chao says, the volunteers cost a lot less than other efforts to aid the struggling democracies.
"What's really needed are people with expertise and skills, and that is precisely what our volunteers bring with them: managerial skills and other skills that, once acquired, will be there forever."
The US government will spend $197 million on Peace Corps projects this year, with 6,000 volunteers in 91 countries. Estimated costs for work in the former Soviet Union are still being determined, as advance teams report on the republics' needs.
Peace Corps officials are heartened by the full endorsement of the Bush administration. One of their chief supporters is State Department official Richard Armitage, deputy to the coordinator for US assistance to the newly independent states.
"These folks are in their forties, by and large, with about 10 years of business experience, [and] an MBA," says Mr. Armitage.
He explained to the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on foreign affairs last week that the volunteers will establish business centers in most, if not all, the republics.
Regarding the interest of would-be volunteers, Chao says the number of queries concerning work in the former Soviet Union "has settled down to 900 a day."
That is still almost four times higher than the volume of calls her staff handled before the Peace Corps announced initiatives in the newly emerging democracies, when working in the former Soviet Union was still a dream.