These are Bill Densmore's running notes of the 2012 U.S.-Russia Civil Society Partnership Program. As other examples of coverage turn up on the web, I'll try to provide links.
The key question for the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Partnership: is it possible for ordinary citizens in each country to come together to share civil-actoin agenda items even in a climate of some official impediments?
In opening remarks, Dan Russell, deputy assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, descries the Russian government's decision to order the end, after 20 years, of activities by USAID in Russia. Despite this, said Russell: "U.S.support for Russian civil society is going to continue." When the USAID program started, there were fewer than 100 civil-society organizations identified in Russia, said Russell. Now, he said, there are hundreds of thousands.
- Sustainability of rural communities around issues such as lack of infrastructure, brain drain and outdated policies.
- Study of wetlands degradation in both countries
- Help with transition Russian orphanage residents to adoptive-home settings
- Totem Necklace Project, Altai Republic and Glacier National Project
- International Grassroots Collaboration for Sustainability Development (Lake Tahoe and Lake Baiku)
- Forest-dependent communities in Russian Far East environmental compliance / Siberian Forest
Recalling the 1985 cross-continent TV of Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner
In 1985, American TV talkshow host Phil Donahue and Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner used cross-content satellite technology to co-host live at the same time in each of their countries a series of unscripted, Q-and-A citizens-in-the-studios discussions about their nations' points of common social interest. As a frame for this week's discussions in Washington, Donahue and Pozner are present, and we are reviewing that historic "Space Bridge" interchange which came as Russian society was becoming dramatically more open.
Now Pozner and Donahue are on stage and are leading a discussion -- how would a "Space Bridge" discussion proceed today?
Pozner noticed that, in reviewing the 1985 video, the Russian audience is careful and does not want to speak government or politics. He got 77,000 letters. Most comment thoughts expressed: Where did you find such idiots for the studio. The second comment: "I saw my face and I did not like it." There was a feeling that people that were not open. I will today address you Americans as if you were still in Seattle. If we had the same Space Bridge today, what would be the behavior of the Russian audience today? Would it be as it was 27 years ago, or would it be different?
Donahue talks about reliving old memories. He thinks in 1985, Americans were preachy. "We had God and you didn't . . . we prayed for your conversion. Much, much later did I realize there was condescension in this." Later he realized there was much we could accomplish if we could just meet each other. He called this meeting and the people involved one of the noblest acts on earth. They two nations are remarkably literate and are "centered on a large heart." He thought in the years after 1985, "if we got together we could stop this madness ... and be more powerful than separately . . . I wish my governmenet were more interested in reaching out or lashing out . . . more interested in diplomacy than sending incendiary devices to other countries . . . I wish your president would not be so suspcious of us. There is a ... fear that moves President Putin to expel USAID."
Donahue: "If I had it to over again I would have been much more understanding of your virtuals . . . and the features of our country that need improvement . . . in some ways maybe you ought to pray for us. Together we can stop the madness, I believe that." Cynicism is the end of activism. "Once you believe there is nothing you can do, you sit down."
Pozner: A recent Russian poll finds that 65% of Russians think of America as a non-friendly, as an enemy country. Thirty-five percent are those who do not have an opinion. There is a very small share who believes otherwise. It is not that different from 27 years ago. If we conducted this same research in the USA, what would be the opinion of Russia -- partner, enemy? What would the percentage be.
Judy, a college professor on the panel, can offer what her students think. During the Cold War there was a special fascination with the two countries, but there was a fascinating commonality among the two peoples. That commonality among people vs. government emnity set her on her career course. Now among today's students, Russia is seen as a fellow rich and powerful country to the United States. "But for two reasons there is a residual sense of hope and curiosity." One is that have come so far from the Cold War period there is now a sense that the U.S. has relations with many people, but there is still something special about the U.S.-Russian relationship -- shared culture, and attitudes about important issues. "On the whole, there is still a sense of curiousity among my students about what is Russia becoming."
Pozner: If we conducted a poll in the United States, not among 19-year-old college students, a general populace poll, would they look at Russia as friend, enemy or would they have no opinion. Could we get comparable results.
Another panelist: Thinks it would be no more than 50% of Americans would think Russian is still "unfriendly." Russia still gets a lot of special attention in the U.S. media. Most Americans have a special interest in Russia and wonder about its role in the world, "other than being this existential threat to the United States."
Donahue: "I think the No. 1 discovery of a survey would be apathy . . . You are longer the Russian bear." Americans are worried more about economy issues, he says. When he was in Russia, he found Russians far more interested in the United States than vice versa.
Panelist at left edge of table: This may be an indication of the more selfish nature of American society and a tendency of individuals to look inward and trying to survive and thrive, even as U.S. companies are trying to expand internationally.
Pozner: There is a view that Americans are mostly interested in their own belly buttons -- an illusion of central position. Why do people believe that I can't express all my thoughts on television in Russia. Pozner says he took a phone call from Russia this morning and a new poll is being conducted of Russian attitudes toward America.
To right of professor: He thinks Russia's federal-run channels control public opinion about the United States and other subjects. For example: The issue of American adoption of Russian children. When something happens in the U.S. to an adopted Russian child it is heavily covered in the Russian media, even though more horrible things happen to children in Russia all the time. "This problem is created in a very unilateral way in Russian -- look at the Americans, how horrible they are, they are torturing our children." Mass media signficantly affects public opinion.
To right of person to right of professor (Woman), next to ambassador: She thinks little has changed from 1985 in Russian attitudes toward America. She thinks things have changed in the United States. Russian society is still very dependent on the government in its decisions and opinions and follows the examples and receives the signals sent from the government and the Russian government toward America is not issuing positive signals recently. Why is this happening? In many ways it is becomes the American government has a very strong response to what is happening in Russia and sometimes it is a little arrogant, and maybe other countries don't take it with as much pain as Russia dies. But Russia is sort of still like a teen-ager and it response as a teen-ager would. Even if the U.S. government comments are correct, Russian leaders behave in aggressive ways, saying we know what to do. Verbal exchanges occur. American society is differnet, it does not affect American society as much.
Donahue: I think we have done a lot of things better than Russia has and many other countries. "I think we have struggled more bravely and mightily on race, for example." Racism has not disappeared, but we have reached out and held hands in a positive way. "We are the most multi-ethnic -- come to New York City -- you can't insult New York City -- everybody's there." We have called ourselves to account for sexual prejudice. "I am expressed with what we've done about this."
To right of professor: The old Russian systems of control no longer work because of the Internet. His suggestion is that the techniques of the Internet and social media be used to foster civil-society engagement.
Horton ambassador: There has always been a baseline of curiosity in the United States toward Russian society that is greater than American interest in most other nations. Now we can go beyond curiousity and engage each other and address problems that affect both nations. But this is a small group in this room. There are a lot of people in both countries -- whether from apathy or fear -- who haven't gotten involved. That's where the gap exists. How do we bridge this space between us -- this gap between what we can imagine doing together and what we can really do.
Marina: Twenty-seven years ago we based our impression on what we read in newspapers and saw on TV. The 65% who have a negative view of America are still influenced by such things. But there are many people now who have visited, who have colleagues in one nation or the other, who have been engaged in study trips or made friends. Despite what media is trying to impose on us, the face-to-face contacts are the mechanism that make it possible to move things ahead. If you did Space Bridge today, people who not have to speculate as much about what they know about the other country but more about what they actually know. Youth can talk to their parents. That is a major change. Regarding lack of confidence: Who among us hear does not trust the other? The more we work closer together, the more we realize why it is different between one country and the other.
The discussion continues around the question of why U.S. citizens will speak freely among themselves and critically about America but are not willing to do so in front of Russians. How do foster mutual sincerity.
Donahue: Americans have a real hostility toward people who criticize America in another forum. He says this may be the result of a sense of "American exceptionalism." He thinks in many ways we are exceptional -- our willingness to provide individual liberties to powerless people against the tyranny of the majority.