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Russia has unofficial blacklist of “undesirable organizations” barring students from U.S. exchange programs

The Russian government maintains an informal list of “undesirable organizations” in addition to its official registry, The Insider has learned from Russian students who applied for exchange programs with the U.S. and were rejected. Information about the unpublished list was also confirmed to The Insider at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. On March 7, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the list to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, along with a demand to stop the work of these organizations in the country. The Foreign Ministry's press release regarding the meeting, however, listed only three NGOs. The Insider's source in the Russian Foreign Ministry said that cooperation with the three organizations was banned, but noted that students should not participate in other programs either, as they had become “toxic” due to “the actions of the U.S. intelligence services.”

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Here’s what the Russian authorities are saying

On March 7, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Lynn Tracy, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and handed her a notice that three NGOs — the American Councils for International Education, Cultural Perspectives, and the Institute of International Education — were considered “undesirable” in Russia because they allegedly “implement programs and projects of anti-Russian orientation aimed at recruiting “agents of influence” under the guise of educational and cultural exchange.”

The ambassador was also handed an official note demanding the cessation of any support for the activities of these NGOs, including a request to remove the list of educational projects and programs implemented by these NGOs “aimed at promoting attitudes and values alien to Russian society” from the embassy’s official website and accounts on social networks.

In reality, all three organizations have been conducting educational programs, including student exchanges, in hundreds of countries for many years.

  • The American Councils for International Education NGO runs educational programs in 148 countries, according to its official website. According to the organization’s internal data, it counts over 100,000 people as alumni, including heads of state, government ministers, members of parliaments, ambassadors, and corporate CEOs.

  • Founded in 1963, the Cultural Vistas NGO operates in over 100 countries and collaborates with 1,000 host companies. This organization's educational programs are utilized by 1,700 universities and various educational institutions worldwide, offering instruction in 40 languages.

  • The Institute of International Education (IIE), headquartered in New York, operates in 180 countries. It was founded in 1919 and today educates 29,000 people. It administers the Benjamin Gilman International Fellowship, the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program, and the International Leadership Program (IVLP). The IIE also administers the Fulbright Program, which offers support for students to attend graduate school in the United States. This year's Russian finalists will no longer be able to benefit.

The U.S. Embassy told the students that the note itself (not the notification of the note being served) contains a much broader list of “banned”organizations, which is why they have been forced to deny Russian students participation. The diplomatic mission confirmed this information to The Insider, but noted that they could not share the list itself.

Russia’s list of “undesirable organizations” is much broader — but it is not published officially

The Insider's source in the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the ban concerns three «undesirable» organizations. However, students should not participate in other programs either, he said:

“So far, we are talking about recognizing three organizations as undesirable. As for the others, those wishing to study should [really think it through], given that they have become toxic because of the actions of the U.S. intelligence services.”

Who received the rejections?

As The Insider has learned, those who applied for programs such as the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship (BFTF), Year of Exchange, and Global UGRAD, received rejections. The latter two are administered by Eurasia Foundation and World Learning and are not on the official “undesirable” register.

Metrics confirming the Year of Exchange website is blocked by Roskomnadzor due to being on the list of 'undesirable organizations'
Metrics confirming the Year of Exchange website is blocked by Roskomnadzor due to being on the list of 'undesirable organizations'

In their rejection letters, however, these organizations state the opposite — that they have been recognized as “undesirable” by the Russian government [according to letters made available to The Insider]. The Year of Exchange website is blocked by Roskomnadzor, the Russian government entity responsible for implementing censorship rules.

The programs and their administrators are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — a U.S. government agency responsible for cultural exchange. It, too, is not on Russia’s “undesirable” register, meaning that the Russian authorities have secretly recognized an American government agency as an «undesirable organization.”

The students themselves believe that the unofficial list of “undesirable” organizations began to be compiled after a speech by Russia's foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin. In a public address in January, Naryshkin claimed that the United States was planning to create a “fifth column” out of graduates of U.S. exchange programs in Russia, and that training would be provided in the “near abroad” for this purpose.

The term “fifth column,” coined during the Spanish Civil War, describes any group of people who undermine a larger group from within – usually in favour of an enemy group or a nation. It’s also one of Vladimir Putin’s favorite terms.

Naryshkin, referring to the calculations of the State Department, noted that over 80,00 Russians have taken part in U.S. programs including Access, FLEX, Advance, Global UGRAD, Work and Travel USA, and the Fulbright Program. According to Naryshkin, Washington believes it can make former participants “a core element of the fifth column” and include them in new sanctions mechanisms with “proper processing.”

However, Naryshkin failed to mention that RT editor-in-chief and propagandist Margarita Simonyan notably spent a year as an exchange student in Bristol, New Hampshire, in 1995, as part of FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program).

Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin said that the programs nurture the “fifth column.” RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan notably lived in New Hampshire as part of one of these exchange programs in 1995

“Bridges between Russia and the U.S. endured in the Cold War”

Immediately after the note was delivered to the U.S. ambassador at the Russian Foreign Ministry on March 7, the U.S. Embassy issued a press release saying that the move effectively amounted to a new “Iron Curtain”:

“Today’s move to designate U.S. educational and exchange organizations as ‘undesirable’ marks a new low in the Russian government’s crackdown on longstanding and entirely routine people-to-people programs.
The idea that it would be “undesirable” to connect Russians and Americans on a human level and facilitate travel for professional and educational development is a tragic illustration of the Kremlin’s desire to isolate its own people, depriving them of the chance to network, expand their horizons, and contribute to building a more prosperous and peaceful world. Free and open societies have nothing to fear from engagement with other nations and people.
For more than 70 years, the Department of State has offered opportunities for Russians citizens – as we do for citizens around the world – to visit, study, and learn about our country. These programs also provide an opportunity for Americans to learn about Russian culture. The United States remains steadfast in our desire to maintain bridges between the people of our two countries, which have endured even through the darkest times of the Cold War. Communication and building understanding and respect between our people contribute to managing shared challenges and makes our world safer. This is why the United States remains open for Russian citizens to visit and study.”

The U.S. Embassy's response to The Insider states that the U.S. has been forced to comply with Russia’s demands and, thereby, to terminate Russians’ participation in its exchange programs. However, the admission of Russian students to U.S. universities will not be stopped, as the U.S. government “does not assign collective blame to ordinary Russian citizens for the aggressive and irresponsible actions of their government”:

“The U.S. government strongly disagrees with the designation made by the Russian government, the new legal status of these partner organizations has made it impossible to continue operating certain exchange programs in Russia. However, the U.S. Embassy remains committed to continuing its support of Russian participants who are already in the United States for their programs.

We also remain committed to supporting people to people contacts between Russians and Americans more broadly, which are even more important in these tense times. The United States continues to welcome Russian students to American university campuses and has been clear that we do not assign collective blame to ordinary Russian citizens for the aggressive and irresponsible actions of their government.

In fact, there were a total of 4,913 Russian students who studied in the United States during the 2022-2023 academic year, including those both on exchange programs and those here for regular academic study.”

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