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Peace Corps to Boost Small Business in Russia

Three decades after it began, Peace Corps is relizing a long-projected but long-thought-impossoble goal: volunteers in the Volga River Valley

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SITTING in a dingy yet cozy hotel room in this Pacific port city, Jim Freer's voice expresses the satisfaction of achieving a long-sought goal, mixed with a little disbelief.

Mr. Freer is head of United States Peace Corps operations in the Russian Far East, and over the past few months he has being laying the foundation for programs in the region.

"Thirty years ago, when [President John F.] Kennedy established the Peace Corps, it was envisioned that some day it would have programs here," Freer says. "But the whole thing has come about suddenly. Who'd have thought - just as recently as two years ago - that we'd have the Peace Corps here?"

Peace Corps programs in Russia became a reality in June, when director Elaine L. Chao sealed the deal by signing an agreement with Acting Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar that established a program in the Russian Federation. Peace Corps targets call for 100 volunteers to be in Russia by December, based in Vladivostok and Saratov, a city on the Volga River.

The two cities will serve as operational hubs for programs throughout the Russian Far East and Volga River basin.

It is hoped that Peace Corps activity will expand to other Russian regions, as well as other former Soviet republics, including Armenia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Volunteers are already operating in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The Peace Corps has traditionally undertaken development projects in the third world, such as building roads and irrigation networks. But in Russia the emphasis will be on small-business development.

"There's already an infrastructure here, but it's not used properly," Freer says. "The goal is to make all the pieces fit."

Because of the more sophisticated requirements in Russia, the Peace Corps volunteers being sent here tend to be older and more experienced than their counterparts going to other nations, says Ms. Chao. The average age of the Russian volunteer is 35, Freer adds.

According to the development plan, the Peace Corps will establish small business centers in various Russian cities, each staffed by up to five volunteers. They will be supplemented by eight to 12 resident advisers assigned individually to various cities.

The centers are expected to advise local government on economic planning and assist in the privatization of small businesses. Volunteers will also conduct training seminars and provide consulting services.

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