Monday, July 25, 2005

Beacon No. 54: The Very Model of a Modern Major Diplomat


On Friday the Moscow Times ran "Russia Will Always Be on His Radar Screen," a valedictory for U.S. ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, whose term in Moscow is ending.

As Lynn Berry writes it, Vershbow, a career diplomat, has been the right guy in Spaso House at the right time. An aficionado of Russian language and culture, Vershbow first traveled to the USSR in 1969 for language education and 32 years later presented his ambassadorial credentials to the Russian government—that would be July of 2001.

Since then, Vershbow has been the articulate voice of American interests in Russia on issues ranging from anti-terrorism cooperation to mineral extraction to HIV awareness. The ambassador and his wife also entertain regularly and attend Russian cultural events—or create them: Vershbow is a drummer and sometime guitarist who has picked up with a Russian jazz band more than a dozen times.

The Vershbow interview highlights the need to have ambassadors with local expertise, sensitivity and enthusiasm in key positions, even to handle issues that seem relatively minor. For example, one extremely prominent story for Russians right now is the recent deaths of Russian babies adopted by American couples, which has little visibility in the U.S. but great resonance in a country already suspicious of U.S. intentions.

While Vershbow may soon be appointed ambassador to South Korea, his successor, William Burns, will have to deal with the increasing Mubarakization of Russian politics. Readers may recall that Egypt recently banned non-governmental organizations from receiving funding from outside the country, seriously damaging foreign NGOs' ability to help Egyptians with election monitoring, education, healthcare or other important tasks. It looks like Moscow is about to do something similar, by fiat if not by law:

Putin on Thursday warned Russian nongovernmental organizations that foreign money was not to be used for political activities in Russia.

The U.S. Congress is on track to allocate $85 million in assistance for Russian civil society next year, the same amount as in 2005. The money goes to a whole range of NGOS, including those that support the handicapped and orphans. Vershbow said some of this money supported Russian NGOs that do things like election monitoring and provided basic training for political parties, with the aim of helping create conditions for free and fair elections.

"We think that it's an investment in a stronger Russia that will become a more reliable partner and a more responsible international citizen," he said in the interview, which was before Putin spoke on the subject.

Vershbow said one reason the U.S. government considered it important to support NGOS in Russia was that they had few sources of domestic support. The arrest of Khodorkovsky sent a strong message to the private sector that funding NGOs and political parties would not be looked upon favorably.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for pointing me toward the Moscow Times story.)

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