By GAIL FINEBERG
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who sponsored legislation authorizing the Library to spend $10 million for a pilot "Open World" Russian Leadership Program this summer, said on July 20 that he will seek congressional authorization to make the project permanent and spend between $15 million and $20 million next year to bring up to 3,000 Russians to the United States.
Sen. Stevens, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library and of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there is apparent congressional support to expand the program and make it permanent.
The announcement came as Sen. Stevens and Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, and Dr. Billington announced the new program formally at a press conference in the Senate Appropriations chamber of the Capitol.
Dr. Billington, chairman of the Russian Leadership Program, participated in a similar news conference in Moscow on July 19, the day before, when he described the program as "one of the largest ever one-time visitation programs to bring current and future Russian leaders to the United States." In Moscow, Dr. Billington was joined by U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins and Dan E. Davidson of the American Councils for International Education.
The program will bring some 2,000 emerging political leaders from throughout the Russian Federation to the United States between now and Sept. 30 to experience family, cultural and political life in America. So far as possible, the Russians will be paired with their political equivalents in towns and cities throughout the United States so they can witness firsthand the operation of democratic institutions, the leaders explained. They noted that a number of members of Congress are making arrangements for the Russians to visit in their home districts as well as in Washington.
Dr. Billington said the program "is based on an act of the U.S. Congress and on the mutual desire of the people of the United States and Russia, and of their governments, for goodwill and better understanding between our two nations."
Also speaking at the Washington news conference was Yuri Ushakov, ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States. He said he hopes the Russian Leadership Program will "lead to better relations between our two countries and our two peoples." He said he hopes for "maximum openness" during the Russians' visit.
"I am grateful to Dr. Billington and all the members of Congress who initiated and supported this program," Mr. Ushakov said.
Dr. Billington said that the invited Russian participants will include elected officials and active and emerging political and civic leaders from all jurisdictional levels -- national, regional, state, local and municipal. "They will be as representative as possible of the breadth of the Russian Federation, geographically and demographically, from Smolensk in the west to Kamchatka in eastern Siberia," Dr. Billington said. Of the 583 invited so far, 562 have accepted invitations to come to the United States, Dr. Billington said. They represent 62 of the Russian Federation's 89 regions.
Sen. Stevens said a speech, "Six Reflections on the Russian Situation," that Dr. Billington gave this spring at the Aspen Institute persuaded several members of Congress to support the Russian visitation program. Both Sen. Stevens and Rep. Taylor praised the Librarian not only for his Library leadership but also his stature as a scholar and an expert in Russian government and political and cultural life.
Dr. Billington announced that Academician Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev, his longtime friend and "world-renowned leading scholar of Russian literature and culture," has agreed to act as co-chairman of the program in Russia.
James W. Symington, who was a Missouri representative to the House from 1969 to 1977, is serving as executive director of the new program. Devoted to a life of public service, Mr. Symington served variously in the U.S. Foreign Service, the White House as deputy director for Food for Peace, the Justice Department as an administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy and in the State Department as chief of protocol during the Johnson administration. He is past president of the Association of Former Members of Congress and chairman of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation.
Mr. Symington thanked Congress for its support and introduced representatives from numerous organizations that are finding American hosts for the visitors and corporate organizations that will support the effort.
Mr. Symington mentioned, among others, the American Foreign Policy Council, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Friendship Force, Meridian International Center, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Peace Links, Rotary International, Russia Initiative, the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church and the Russian Ministry Network of the Episcopal Church. He also mentioned the Council of Jewish Federations, the Orthodox Church in America, the Frank Russell Company of Takoma, Wash., and the U.S.-Russia Business Council.
In May, Congress included funds for the new program in the fiscal 1999 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act (PL 106-31), which designated the Library as the lead agency for the pilot phase of the program this year. The purpose of the Russian Leadership Program, according to authorizing legislation, is "to enable emerging political leaders of Russia at all levels of government to gain significant firsthand exposure to the American free-market economic system and the operation of American democratic institutions through visits to governments and communities at comparable levels in the United States."
President Clinton signed the bill on May 21, and the Library launched the program on May 24.
By July 26, the first group of Russian visitors was expected to have left Moscow for the United States, followed by waves of 250 visitors every week thereafter, said Geraldine Otremba, who is serving as the program's full-time executive operating officer.
In the Aspen Institute address and a subsequent speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Dr. Billington, an authority on Russia's culture and political life, stressed the importance of reaching out to Russian leaders this summer. In December 1999, elections will be held for the Russian Duma -- the lower house consisting of some 450 regional representatives. In June 2000, the Russian presidential election is scheduled. Recalling the success of the Marshall Plan in expending only 1.5 percent of its resources to bring young, future leaders of Germany's federal democracy to the United States to witness the democratic process after World War II, Dr. Billington said the United States "should take this wonderful opportunity to invite the entire political elite of Russia to visit the United States."
In his May 18 address on the state of U.S.-Russian relations, the Librarian said that Russia is at a crossroads. Russians could either "revert to the historic pattern of producing an autocracy at the end of their time of troubles more absolute and centralized than the preexisting one," he said, or "they may be able to solidify the formal structures of a democratic rule of law with substantial powers devolved to local governments, thereby legitimizing the path they have been following in an uncertain way up to this time."
Dr. Billington noted that Russia still spans more than half of the territory of both Europe and Asia and contains roughly one-fifth of the world's untapped natural energy resources and a vast arsenal of deliverable weapons of mass destruction. Accordingly, he said, "The No. 1 foreign policy concern for U.S. interests should be the future of the core country within the former Soviet empire: Russia. But Russia has been and is being treated largely as a secondary or even ... third-echelon problem."
Mr. Symington's vision for the program is to give the visiting Russians an opportunity to observe how the American people govern themselves and meet their own needs at every level of government, starting at the local level with school boards, city councils and boards of county supervisors; at the state level with legislatures and governors; and at the federal level.
Recalling former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's opinion that "all politics is local," Mr. Symington said he thinks it will help prospective Russian leaders to see how Americans operate their schools, repair their roads and provide water, power and other essential services to their communities.
"We want to show our Russian friends and visitors how accountable local government must be to the people, and how local government interfaces with state and federal governments," Mr. Symington said. "The folks coming here will take back with them better information about America's self-governance at all levels."
He emphasized that American hosts can learn from their Russian visitors too. "Russia has a history of local government in some areas. It will be interesting to learn how their local governance has unfolded after an era of rigid control," Mr. Symington said, adding it is his impression that, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the shift of control away from a centralized government, Russia's regions function with a greater degree of independence. "The people have had to take on greater responsibility for their own lives, to meet their local needs in their own ways," he said.
Local needs will affect national policies. Mr. Symington said the new leaders of Russia will have "huge decisions to make," such as how to set environmental policies that will balance local and regional needs with national and international interests.
Alluding to Russia's post-authoritarian decline in its standard of living and the decentralization of its economic institutions, Mr. Symington said, "Their resources are so slender and limited that it is difficult for them to put into place a happy, growing political and economic life. The Russian people have had very tight belts during the past decade or so; we have to respect the fact they have to make these decisions in an environment of shortage."
Mr. Symington said he is confident that Americans participating in the program will avoid expressing their democratic views in an overbearing, pedantic way to their Russian guests. "We cannot expect them to replicate our experience, but we can improve their understanding of our system and be open to learning about theirs," he said.
Mr. Symington said that Americans and Russians must sit down with one another as friends to rediscover the affinities they have as people, "in order to remove any impression that the United States has any agenda that is inimical to the security of the Russian nation."
Dr. Billington and Mr. Symington both said the congressional decision to reach out to prospective Russian leaders at all levels of responsibility comes at a critical time -- (1) before national elections in December and next spring, and (2) after NATO's recent bombing of Serbian Yugoslavia, which has angered many Russians, who identify culturally with the Serbs.
Mr. Symington noted that polls indicated that Russian enthusiasm for the United States had begun to wane, even before NATO's campaign: "A few years ago, when Russia was fresh out of communist gridlock, there were warm feelings for the United States. But mistakes were made in trying to jump-start the economy, followed by misunderstandings regarding the NATO mission in the Balkans."
He added: "We hope the Russian visitors will recognize, at the very least, that public service is viewed in this country as an opportunity to improve the lives of ordinary people."
Mr. Symington echoed the Librarian's belief that the United States and Russia should forge an alliance for peace. "Since the devolution of republics from Russia, Russia has emerged intact, with a great deal of remaining diversity. I have always felt Russia and the United States should work together in the interest of the world," Mr. Symington said. "As we enter the 21st century, we have a fresh chance for world peace that can begin with a solid relationship with Russia."
Although he had planned "a more serene summer than Jim Billington had in mind for me," Mr. Symington said he could not resist the Librarian's invitation to help with this project, which fit with an idea Mr. Symington had for the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation three years ago, of inviting "the new meritocracy of Russia" to replicate a U.S. visit in 1871 that the Grand Duke Alexis, the fourth son of Alexander II, made in response to an invitation from President Ulysses S. Grant. The Grand Duke visited 20 cities. In Boston, he was treated to a dinner with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He visited farms and industrial Midwestern cities, such as Cleveland and Chicago, and he went all the way to South Dakota, where he hunted buffalo with Generals Custer and Sheridan and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Mr. Symington said the Russian government was so enthusiastic about his idea for the cultural exchange that, instead of giving U.S. tours for Russians, his foundation found itself in the position of sponsoring a traveling exhibition of Romanov treasures to five U.S. cities. "That was fine, but I felt somewhat unfulfilled with the change of focus," Mr. Symington recalled. "So, when Jim said he had cultivated this miraculous congressional interest in a Russian Leadership Program and asked me if I would help, I said, 'Sure.'"