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Citizen Diplomacy: The Way to Advance Russo-American Relations

"Welcome to the new world of constructive, intentional Citizen Diplomacy. We made it work in the 1980's, and now it's time to make it work again!"

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Director of the California-based Center for Citizen Initiatives, Sharon Tennison is an absolutely unique character. For the last 33 years she has been promoting US-Russian citizen diplomacy, travelling all over Russia and bringing hundreds of Russians to visit America and Americans to Russia, promoting business contacts and developing quite a following in both countries. She’s one of the best friends Russia has ever had in the United States. Sharon’s impressions found their way into RI.

Last February when she was in Volgograd, something happened that could put an end to all these noble activities. Below she provides an explanation of the intrigue around her trip and assures her friends that citizen diplomacy will go on.

<figcaption> July 2015. Sharon Tennison (front center) with a group of US and Russian citizen diplomats in Volgograd</figcaption>
July 2015. Sharon Tennison (front center) with a group of US and Russian citizen diplomats in Volgograd

The June trip to Russia had been on hold until I could get assurance that my next Visa would be issued by Russian authorities. I was unexpectedly picked up and detained by Volgograd Immigration authorities in late February. This coming trip rested on whether the pickup was a mistake or was part of a crackdown that could have included someone like me who has operated freely in Russia for the past thirty years. I’ve now been assured it was due to hyperactive protectors of their area–and extreme current concern about foreign government-funded NGO's that may actually be implementing foreign political objectives. (In the early 2000's CCI did receive State Department funding for some of its programs, which may have contributed to the misunderstanding.)

I refused to believe that I could be considered an “enemy of the state” or a “foreign agent.” I’ve criticized both the U.S. and Russian governments, but have supported the general direction of the new Russian government. Given that Russia has had only 25 years since communism imploded in 1990, it has done extraordinarily well so far. I’ve been on the ground, observing the changes, working with Russians over these last three decades. I see how their centuries of culture still influence their character and reactions today––just as our country's history influences us.

I cringe when American politicians, television anchors and newspaper columnists, with no real knowledge of Russia, pontificate and create impressions that bear no resemblance to the truth in today’s Russia.  Also Russia is held to standards to which we don’t hold our major allies. Why is this? How can honest information be obtained in this rancorous US-Russia environment today?

We need to expose larger numbers of Americans to Russians and Russia’s reality. In the 1980's CCI took thousands of Americans to the USSR and broke through decades of fear and misinformation with amazing results--and it BADLY needs to happen again today.

June 15- 30, 2016, I will lead a group of forward-thinking, informal citizen diplomats to Moscow, Krasnodar, St. Petersburg and the newly rejoined Crimea (Yalta, Simferopol, and Sevastopol). Our chief objective will be to get a realistic understanding of Russia today, from students at their universities to policy makers in their offices. We will engage in informal discussions with Russian businessmen and women, NGO organizers, physicians, educators, working journalists and families in their homes. Dividing up in groups of four Americans each day, we will have different experiences which will later develop into a composite picture of what collectively we have learned.

This will be no ordinary trip. We will catch metros and taxis and forego tourist buses with tour guides. We will try to squeeze in a few cultural activities. I wouldn’t want you to miss the truly exceptional palaces and landmarks, like the Yalta palace where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to divide up the spoils of WWII. It is lovely beyond imagination. The place reeks of history! If you want more cultural activities, local professional guides can be arranged. And you can veer off by yourself from the planned meetings as you wish.

This will be an economy trip, low on hotel costs, high on adventure. CCI will not add on a surcharge for the trip. It’s high season, but the current dollar/ruble rate will be beneficial to our pocketbooks. I project that the cost will be something around $2500 from JFK back to JFK. More on this after I discuss with GoToRussia’s booking agent.

I want to get this notice out to you asap––time is short between now and then. If you feel inspired to travel on a trip of this type, contact me immediately. I will send you an application.

Welcome to the new world of constructive, intentional Citizen Diplomacy. We made it work in the 1980's, and now it's time to make it work again!

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