After 20 Years, Russia Pulls Out of Education Exchange Program

The Russian Government has recently put an end to a 20-year-old exchange program with the US that allowed students from both countries to study abroad.

The Kremlin accused the US of allowing a student to remain in the country under the care of a gay couple, undermining the Russian law that does not allow adoption by gay parents.

"The child, who has a mother in Russia, has illegally been placed under guardianship, and the boy has been handed over to a US gay couple," Russia's children's ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said. Astakhov added that the boy was from a good background and was perfectly healthy, saying he could therefore see no arguments against him returning to his homeland.

The Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) has provided 8,000 Russian students with the opportunity to travel and study in the US with the goal of teaching democracy "firsthand through experiencing it." In 2013, over 14,000 students applied for the program, which only 238 were chosen for.

According to FLEX participants, the program does not allow students to remain in the US more than two years or to apply for residence visas.

"For two years you can only come to the U.S. as a tourist, so the program does not provide options for immigration," said Petrosyan, who spent his FLEX year in Louisville, Kentucky.

Only those students are chosen who are considered to be low-risk of staying past the two years allowed.

"[Astakhov's explanation] is absurd because one of the key rules is that the candidate cannot have any pre-existing connections in the U.S.," said Eduard Khakimov, the administrator of an unofficial FLEX web community that publishes blogs of the program's participants, on the phone from his native Naberezhniye Chelny.

When participants return to Russia they remain a close-knit community who participate in volunteer projects.

The Kremlin passed a law in 2012 forbidding US couples from adopting Russian children, as retaliation for a US move that implicated Russian officials in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who blew the whistle on a relationship between organized crime and police. The Kremlin accused the US of using the FLEX program to get around the law, ignoring the "moral and ethical principles of Russian society."

Hundreds of student exchange programs still exist in Russia, including a "global education" program set by President Vladimir Putin giving grants to Russian students, allowing them to study in universities around the globe, including the US.

Due to logistical issues, the program has not yet been launched.

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