Political discrimination and anti-American sentiments in Russia
This is my account of how I was excluded from Russia's delegation to the Global Youth Forum last December.
In September of 2012, my Indonesian friend I met at the G(irls)20 Summit a couple of years ago published a link on facebook encouraging G(irls)20 Summit Ambassadors to apply. The event was called the Global Youth Forum and it was to be organized by the United Nations Population Fund in Bali, Indonesia later in December. It was open to young people from all countries and the only eligibility requirement was related to age. I am generally not interested in one-time events, even if it includes an all-expenses-paid trip abroad. However, its connection to the United Nations meant that I would apply.
Most of the questions in the online application focused on an applicant’s experience and expertise. The organizers of the event were clearly looking for young people very accomplished in public policy and the non-profit sector. I hesitated for a moment – I thought I did not have enough experience – but applied anyway.
In late October, I received a series of e-mails from the Global Youth Forum Secretariat with congratulations on being selected and registration instructions. I followed the instructions, registered by the deadline, and found out that I was the only one to have been selected from my group of friends who applied. I did some initial research on the event agenda and discussed it with my economic development professor at Mount Holyoke College.
In mid-November, just a few weeks before the Forum, the Secretariat asked all selected delegates to contact UNFPA branch offices in their respective countries to work on their traveling arrangements. Since there were no any citizenship or residence requirements in the eligibility guidelines, I hesitated between contacting Russia's or the U.S. branch office. My friends convinced me to write to the Russia’s office and be a Russia’s National Delegate.
When I contacted the UNFPA office in Moscow, staff there responded quickly and said that they were working on my traveling arrangements. Mr. Ilya Zhukov, who would be communicating with me on behalf of UNFPA in Russia, told me that everything was ready but they were awaiting a few technical details from the UNFPA head office in New York. He kindly asked me if in the meantime I could send him my resume. I sent my resume, and the next couple of days I received an e-mail from Mr. Zhukov saying that the UNFPA branch office in Moscow refused to work on my traveling arrangements and support my participation in the Forum in any other way.
The only role of the UNFPA office in Moscow was purchasing tickets for the delegates selected by the Global Youth Forum Secretariat. The Secretariat explicitly guaranteed an all-expenses-paid trip to all selected delegates. By refusing to work with me, the UNFPA office in Russia went against the terms and conditions of the Global Youth Forum. Why would they? What was wrong with my resume?
Last summer, Russia passed a law obliging all non-profits funded from foreign sources to call themselves “foreign spies” on all their publication materials and websites. All such non-profits were prohibited from “interfering into Russia’s domestic policy” in terms that would portray even an animal shelter as “interfering into Russia’s domestic affairs.” Human rights organizations in Russia, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, immediately realized what that meant for their existence. But besides attacking foreign non-profits on paper, Russia started to kick them out of the country. Last fall, the US agency for International Development was kicked out. It was followed by a public promise to kick out everything under the U.S. Department of State. Russians with strong anti-American sentiments applauded. The spiral of anti-American policies in Russia continued, sometimes taking astonishing turns.
Over the last few years, I saw Russia turn increasingly anti-American. As long as I can remember, this country has always been that way. Anti-American agitation by the older generation, who grew up in the Soviet Union, became an indispensable part of the political mainstream. These sentiments have been something Russian politicians show off, something they talk about with a sense of pride, something they use when they want to prove their “patriotism” in a political debate. This is NOT to say that Russia’s political majority are anti-American. However, the Russia’s mainstream undoubtedly are. I will explore the roots of modern anti-Americanism in Russia in another post. For now, its existence in Russia provides the context for my story and sheds light on the reasons behind the UNFPA office unexplained and illegitimate refusal to work with me. This context helps a non-Russian person better understand how the activities recorded in my resume are viewed by Russia’s political mainstream, to which a significant portion of the older generation belongs.
First, my resume says that I go to college in the United States. This brings a whole set of associations and stereotypes to Russians, especially those from the older generation. Russian stereotypes about American education deserve a separate post. Briefly, a person with American education is likely to be viewed in Russia as uneducated. The only exception is made for those who went to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. These are the only schools of which older Russians ever heard. Any other school in the U.S. is considered a “bad” school and a “waste of time.”
Second and probably worse, my two-page resume in font size 11 says that when I lived in Russia, and I lived there for 20 years, I worked with a number of foreign non-profits. In 2010, for example, I worked with Winrock International, which is funded by the US agency for International Development. More importantly, I was involved with a couple of organizations under the umbrella of the US Department of State. I personally received tens of thousands of dollars for educational purposes, sometimes directly but more often indirectly, from the US Department of State. I also worked with non-profits in Europe and Canada. In addition, my resume indicates that in the past I was involved with human rights organizations and I am currently working for one. I write articles exposing corruption and police abuses in Russia. Yet perhaps more important, I applied to the Global Youth Forum and registered as the G(irls)20 Summit Ambassador. I affiliated myself with the international non-profit G(irls)20 Summit, which is based in Canada.
Would a Russian with pro-mainstream views be content to see someone like me to get things and get ahead? Someone “brain-washed,” “uneducated,” and working for all those “foreign spies” “whose only dream is to undermine social order in Russia?” They didn’t select me for anything. They never would. But at least they could prevent me from being a “Russia’s National Delegate.” This way they would ensure that all those selected from Russia “deserve” to be Russia’s Delegates: they are educated (read: they go to school in Moscow), they are not brain-washed (read: they never worked with “foreign spies”), they are real patriots (read: they don’t expose problems in their country), and they are serious, politically aware young people (read: they are anti-American). Sorry, Mr. Zhukov, I didn’t fit any of these criteria. The Global Youth Forum Secretariat must have made a mistake when they selected me.
When I received Mr. Zhukov’s last e-mail, I immediately notified the Secretariat, but they never clearly explained the situation to me, never apologized, and never took any action. Even though they were aware of what had happened, I kept receiving hotel registration and other documents up to the day of the Summit.
I will never know what Mr. Zhukov really thought when he saw my resume. However, what I know is that my resume was the turning point in the decision of the UNFPA office in Russia to include me into Russia’s delegation, something it didn’t even have the authority to decide. The prejudice of the staff there, whatever it was, was so strong, that they were willing to violate the terms and conditions of such a respectable, widely advertised and highly publicized event. The Global Youth Forum Secretariat turned out to be very unprofessional and disorganized, unable to enforce its own rules and regulations. Before publishing this article, I asked the UNFPA office in Russia and the Global Youth Forum Secretariat to comment on what had happened, but neither of the two provided any statements. This situation certainly brings UNFPA office in Russia and the Global Youth Forum Secretariat into disrepute. Even internationally recognized organizations can be internally weak.