WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (UPI) —
Russia has decided to withdraw from FLEX, a student exchange program established with the U.S. in 1992.
U.S. officials expressed disappointment that Russia will no longer allow students to participate in the Future Leaders Exchange program, which offered Russian high school students the opportunity to live with American host families for one academic year.
"It was the largest U.S.-Russia cultural exchange program, and over the past 21 years, more than 8,000 Russian students have participated," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding "The FLEX program was vital in building those kinds of bonds between young Russians and Americans that we need in order to overcome challenges in our bilateral relations."
Russia’s withdrawal was prompted, in part, by "the gross violation by the host country, the United States, of the obligation to unconditionally return students from Russia who travel there to study," Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, tweeted Wednesday.
In an interview with state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Astakhov explained that an unnamed 17-year-old student participating in the program was staying with two men in Michigan "and they gradually developed — how can I say this carefully — close friendly relations." The same-sex couple then "wanted to register their guardianship over him and have him live with them, and he agreed."
Russia has previously voiced its opposition to same sex adoptions and instituted a ban to prevent such adoptions, in addition to banning the U.S. from adopting Russian children.
"There is nothing wrong with international exchange programs … until they violate the rules," Astakhov said in a statement.
The FLEX program placed the boy in question in a "traditional home stay," responded David Patton, executive vice president of the American Councils for International Education that administers the program. While FLEX does not preclude placement with same-sex host parents, it is unclear how the student met the same-sex couple.
With regard to students deciding not to leave after the academic year finishes, Patton acknowledges "human beings are human beings and can’t always be controlled." While "there are occasions when people decide to stay" he pointed out "the non-returnee rate is less than 1 percent… At that point we are unable, we have no authority to put them on a plane;" rather, it becomes an "immigration-naturalization issue."
FLEX alumna Anya Laletina said she "wasn’t surprised" that Russia has decided to withdraw from the program. "Because of the relationship between Russia and the United States, it’s not surprising at all. It’s just another thing in this whole process."