Another Foreign Headline Hits Rather Close to Home
Don't worry. I'm not launching a new series of "Russia and Me" columns, though it may seem like it. We're still a local paper.
Here's the thing, though. Last week, when I wrote about the anti-American uprisings in the Muslim world within the context of my own long-ago experience as a Russian linguist at a U.S. Army Security Agency listening post in Turkey, I had no idea that Vladimir Putin was about to announce that he was kicking the U.S. Agency for International Development out of Russia. But he was.
And when you talk about USAID programs in Russia, see, you're talking about how I spent a couple of years of my life just before coming here to Moore County. No way can I let this development pass without comment.
From my Turkish stint in the early 1960s, when the Cold War was raging and we were afraid we might be losing it, fast-forward to 1992. The Soviet Union had just collapsed. A lot of people on our side worried that Russia was up for grabs and thought Americans should be doing all they could to help in the difficult but hoped-for transition from communism to democracy.
I was one of those idealistic souls feeling a sense of calling. I took a fabulous, eye-opening trip to Russia with a friend in early 1993. Then one thing led to another. First, the Center for Foreign Journalists sent me for a six-week excursion to provincial towns in the Golden Ring region, seeking to find out how the West could get the most bang for its bucks in helping foster independent media.
That led to an offer from the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency to bail out of my job as editor of The Salisbury Post and go over to Russia for a year. More to the point, that in turn led to a two-year contract as a so-called "senior media adviser" with the Democratization Office in USAID's bureau covering the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Those four years in the mid-1990s amounted to the big adventure of my life, not to mention a time of both growth and massive disruption for my wife and young daughter. During the two USAID years, I worked out of the State Department in Washington and we lived a fairly normal life in suburban Virginia. But I traveled a lot, not only in Russia but also in countries from Hungary and Poland in the north to Romania and Ukraine in the south.
My primary mission was to design and contract out a big new program of American assistance, which I dubbed the Professional Media Program. With its name now shortened to Promedia, it is still in business all these years later, having distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to media operations in countries all over the world.
Though I was out of my comfort zone as a federal bureaucrat, I was proud of the efforts of us in our office. I focused on media, but my colleagues worked hard to make a difference in areas such as local government, nongovermental organizations and human rights.
Efforts like ours took flak from all sides. Conservative politicians - led by North Carolina's own Sen. Jesse Helms - questioned the whole idea of foreign aid and accused us of helping shore up the regime of Boris Yeltsin. The reality was just the opposite. We were trying to strengthen the entities within Russia that could provide counterbalances to a monolithic Kremlin.
At the same time, there were obvious suspicions from some on the Russian side about us American do-gooders over there meddling in their internal affairs. For sure, helping newspapers increase their independence from the government was a more sensitive activity than, say, helping towns improve their sewers. Some Russians were convinced we were working for the CIA.
It is just such suspicions that have now motivated Putin, facing massive opposition in the streets, to terminate all USAID activities within his borders as part of an effort to silence opposition. I think he is cutting off his nose to spite his face, causing millions of his own fellow Russians to suffer because of his paranoia. Some Western groups are already trying to find ways around his rash edict.
Granted, you can only keep the training wheels on for so long. Some might argue that it's time to pull the plug on these kinds of well-intentioned programs in other people's countries. Lord knows we have enough problems crying out for attention here at home.
Still, foreign aid is a much tinier sliver of the federal budget (less than 1 percent) than most people think. I'm convinced it has mostly been worth the money in terms of the progress and good will we have created among freedom-loving people everywhere, and I'm glad to have played even a small part in it.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at email@example.com.
More like this story