Russia scraps US exchange scheme, says teen put in gay couple's care
Russia has pulled out of a long-running US-funded student exchange programme, accusing the organisers of letting a teenager stay behind in the United States in the care of a gay couple.
Moscow's decision to pull the plug on the largest Russia-US high school exchange programme comes amid a showdown with the United States over Ukraine which has also seen President Vladimir Putin try to curb the spread of Western values.
"A 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 on Wednesday.
He said the teenager had "stayed behind in the United States."
"The child hails from a decent family and is healthy so it's unclear what arguments those in the United States have been guided by," said Astakhov, adding that the teenager's mother did not want to release any further details of the case.
Russia does not recognize same-sex marriages and has banned adoptions from countries that legally allow such unions.
The US embassy in Moscow said it could not comment on individual cases but indicated that it regretted the suspension of an exchange programme that served to promote friendly ties.
"At a time of heightened tensions between our countries, people-to-people exchanges such as the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program are a means to foster dialogue and respect between people," embassy spokesman Will Stevens told AFP.
US ambassador John Tefft on Tuesday expressed regret that the Russian authorities had suspended a programme that saw over 8,000 Russians study in US high schools over the past two decades.
"We deeply regret this decision by the Russian government to end a program that for 21 years has built deep and strong connections between the people of Russia and the United States," Tefft said.
The Russian foreign ministry said the programme had helped bypass Russian legislation banning adoptions by gay parents.
"Unfortunately, such an incident has taken place," it said in a statement, saying that Moscow's partners have to respect the "moral and ethical principles of Russian society."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US government and non-government organisations sponsored a number of exchange programmes for young Russians in a bid to improve ties with the former Cold War enemy.
Many of the Russian students chose not to return.
-'No brain-washing whatsoever'-
Some FLEX alumnae lamented the closure of the programme in Russia.
"I believe the programme was useful -- both for Russian participants and American families. Both sides learnt from each other, shedding stereotypes," said Elena Chernenko, a foreign affairs correspondent for one of Russia's top newspapers, Kommersant.
"Personally, I realised in the States that I wanted to live and work in Russia," Chernenko, who studied in Texas in 1999, told AFP. "There was no brain-washing whatsoever."
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, Putin has pushed an increasingly conservative agenda, seeking to promote Russia as the antithesis of the West.
In 2012, Russia banned the adoption of Russian children by American families. Activists decried the move, saying it lessened the chances of disabled orphans finding a home.
The ban came in retaliation for a US law punishing Russian officials implicated in the 2009 prison death of whistle-blowing attorney Sergei Magnitsky.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have dramatically intensified over the Ukraine crisis, with the United States introducing sanctions against Russia over its support for separatists in the ex-Soviet state.
Observers said the spike in political tensions have dealt a heavy blow to human ties.
"We are seeing human, cultural and scientific contacts that have been built up over the past 20 years being torn apart, and rather thoughtlessly at that," said Ivan Kurilla, an expert on Russian-US relations at Volgograd State University.
"Politics should not affect the ties between the two peoples."
© 2014 AFP