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During my first visit to Russia in 1978, there was a story I heard several times. It was such a well-known tale that Hedrick Smith wrote about it in “The Russians.” It goes something like this:

The tsar dies and goes to hell. Some years later, Lenin dies and also goes to hell. The tsar asks, “How’s the secret police? How’s the army? Are you collecting maximum taxes from the peasants?”

“Yes, yes and yes,” answers Lenin.

“Good, good” says the tsar.

Stalin dies next, goes to hell and gets the same questions from the dead tsar.

“Yes, yes and yes,” answers Stalin.

Next, Khrushchev dies, and while in hell gets the same questions from the tsar. He answers, “Yes, yes, yes,” but also adds, “You will be pleased, your Majesty, we also increased the alcohol content of vodka by one percent.”

The tsar stops for a moment and says reflectively, “For one percent you had a revolution?”

Last week President Putin ended the U.S. State Department’s engagement of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Basically, we were kicked out and sent packing.

My mind quickly went back to my visit to Moscow and Ukraine in the summer of 1993, 19 years ago. I was doing long-form radio then and, with Doug Stephan, broadcast my show from Russia. We were there at the invitation of AID and spent almost a week looking at the new innovations of what had transformed from a cold war enemy to a new democratic friend.

AID was not only spending money to help out in areas such as health care, AID spent money at that time to help transform business and the basic institutions of Democracy. Russia was having a giant sale of its state own factories and businesses. We met a woman who was using her voucher of 10,000 rubles to purchase shares (stock) in the bakery she frequented. We were told how AID was going to use money to train judges and lawyers in the rudiments of a civil and just society. We met with mayors and learned how we were sending in assistance to teach local officials to be responsive to local citizens. We visited the Kiev International Media Center that was being supported by AID to teach the meaning of a free press.

Close to $3 billion and 19 years later, AID is being forced to end operations in Russia. The official line from the Russian government is that, as an oil-producing country, Russia does not need foreign aid. The real reason goes something like the story of the tsar in hell. There is still a one-party government in Russia. There is still a tsar, even if he is “elected,” and there is still a one percent oligarchy problem, just like there was 100 years ago in Russia.

Back then, in 1993, we had high hopes for democracy. Testifying before Congress, Deputy Secretary of State Clifton Wharton Jr. said, “The essential first question we had to ask ourselves was whether foreign assistance and particularly the type of developmental assistance that USAID can offer continues to be essential in the post-Cold War era … foreign assistance, in light of the new international realities and challenges remains a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and is just as important, if not more so than it ever was.”

Ranking 147th on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index (I serve on the U.S. advisory board) the most recent report says about Russia, “The freedom panorama continues to be gloomy.” Not exactly a sterling recommendation for our country’s support for press freedom. There are examples abounding about the limits of free speech in Russia, including the jailing and conviction of the punk rock band members of Pussy Riot.

I am not of the Ron Paul ilk that believes we have to stop foreign aid. I do not think we close up shop and build a moat around our borders. However, we have to understand that when we engage in a “new democracy,” be it the Arab Spring countries or in the middle of Africa or Russia, that we understand the realities and the history of the country we are choosing to engage in. Countries with histories of dictatorships will not change overnight, nor will countries where corruption is a part of the everyday culture of doing business. Building a democracy and press freedom takes a lot more than 20 years and $3 billion.

Culture changes slowly, and so do power structures. Who is in that one percent may change, but the overall idea of the percentage of people holding power may not. We need to go into “new democracies” with our eyes open and take a closer look at what our spending can really accomplish. Otherwise it is an expensive ride to nowhere.

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