In a fresh blow to the fast-unraveling US-Russia relationship, Moscow has canceled Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), the largest and most successful youth exchange program between the two countries. The program has helped about 8,000 Russian teenagers experience a year of living in the US since its inception in 1992.
The Kremlin's ombudsman for children's rights, Pavel Astakhov, claimed Thursday that the main reason for ending the program was that at least 15 Russian participants have been induced to remain in the US over the years, including at least one who was allegedly "handed over to an American homosexual couple" for adoption.
The cancellation of FLEX is just the latest in a series of mutual cuts over the past two years, from a ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans to termination of a successful joint program to control loose nuclear materials. A once impressive infrastructure of grassroots cooperation built up with intergovernmental consent in the wake of the cold war has been pared away to almost nothing, while dialogue at the top has shriveled to little more than a hail of mutual accusations.
Russia's Foreign Ministry even warned Russians earlier this year not to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with the US because of the danger they might be snatched by US special services, taken to the US, and imprisoned on some false pretense.
"The end of FLEX is just another drop in the bucket," says Kirill Koktysh, a political expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "The logic of American policy these days is to isolate Russia, with sanctions, and cutting off cooperation. Even if the Russian side initiated this, it's just one more thing."
Echoing the current Kremlin mood, Mr. Koktysh alleged that the US employs programs such as this to spread political influence, and it's an obvious target to be slashed amid the current wave of suspicion and acrimony.
But students who have participated in the program in the past, and some who were slated to go to the US in the coming year, have taken to social media to express their disappointment. An online petition asking the Russian government to "Give Us Back FLEX" has gathered about 2,000 signatures in the past two days.
"It is a chance to change one's life and the life of one's family," wrote 2011 FLEX alumnus Danil Vlasenko, from the central Russian city of Yaroslavl in the comments section. "I can't describe how glad I am to have participated in the program, because all my successes since have been due to FLEX. If they close it, that will be a tragedy."
Olesya Glushenko, of Blagoveshensk in Russia's far east, suggested the program was one of the last strings that "prevent our two countries from becoming belligerents." Taya Zachek, of St. Petersburg, wrote "I can't just imagine what my life would have been without this priceless experience."
Another young woman, Katya Solntse, who said she was a candidate for next year's FLEX program, posted a long lament over the cancellation on her VKontaktye page, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
"I have no words to explain my feelings on behalf of all who've been deprived of this opportunity," she wrote. "I feel betrayed, helpless, and insignificant."
The bombastic accusations from Mr. Astakhov, the ombudsman, about the treatment of Russian children adopted by US families have often been misleading.
On Wednesday, Buzzfeed quoted David Patton, vice president of the American Councils for International Education (ACIE), which oversees implementation of the FLEX program, as saying that the program routinely includes same sex couples as hosts for Russian exchange students. Mr. Patton added that one youth from last year's program did indeed decline to return to Russia.
"There’s certainly a grain of truth in about everything that’s said here," he is quoted as saying about Astakhov's allegations.
But he pointed out that the youth in question had not been placed in a same-sex family, nor had his hosts moved to "adopt" him. It was a "post-program" issue, in which the young person went off on his own, and that his case is now in the hands of US immigration.