The speech given by Anya Sarang, the President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, at the side event Reducing the harms of drug control in Eastern Europe and Central Asia which took place during the 60th annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs on 17 March 2017 in Vienna.
In 2016 the UNAIDS reported that the HIV epidemic has been taken under control in most countries of the world. The countries of Eastern and Southern Africa have reached a 4% decline in new adult HIV infections, the rates of which were also relatively static in Latin America and the Caribbean, Western and Central Europe, North America and the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, the annual numbers of new HIV infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased by 57% with Russia responsible for 80% of the new cases. There are only a few countries in the world where HIV keeps rising, and Russia has the fastest rate. According to the Federal AIDS Centre, around 300 people get infected, and 60 people die of AIDS every day. As of August 2016, the number of registered HIV cases was 1,060,000 while the estimates go beyond 3 million. And according to the Ministry of Health, only 28% of patients in need receive antiretroviral therapy.
The main group affected by the HIV in the country is people who inject drugs (PWID). From 1987 to 2008 about 80% of HIV infections were related to unsterile injections and still in 2015 almost 55% of the new cases are among drug users. Since the beginning of the epidemic, over 200,000 people with HIV have died, the primary cause of death being co-infection with tuberculosis. According to WHO, Russia is among top countries with the highest burden of TB including its multidrug-resistant forms. Another deadly co-infection is hepatitis C: its prevalence among people who use drugs reaches 90% in some cities. And drug users are entirely excluded from any treatment programs.
The reason for such a dramatic dynamic in public health is the Russian government’s failure to address the HIV epidemic, especially among the people most affected. The Russian government is notoriously negligent to the issue of HIV, vigorously adherent to the most repressive and senseless drug policies and openly resistant to evidence-based internationally recommended harm reduction programs and opioid substitution treatment with methadone and buprenorphine. The government not only fails to provide the financial support to these programs, it explicitly opposes them in the State strategies, such as the National drug strategy. At the same time in the past several years, the international support to HIV prevention has also dramatically shrunk. Due to the aggressive line of the Russian government towards the international aid and unkept promises to allocate own resources towards the epidemic, most international donors have left the country. That resulted in 90% decrease in the coverage of needle and syringe programs. Back in 2009, we had 75 harm reduction projects reaching out to 135.000 clients, and in 2016 there are only 16 projects to reach out to 13.800 individuals which is less that half percent of the estimated number of people who inject drugs. These few remaining projects are supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, but even this symbolic support expires by the end of this year, and there are no new sources on the horizon.
To make the situation even more tragically absurd, in 2016 the Russian government started to attack non-governmental organizations that provide prevention services to people who use drugs and to LGBT. In one year alone, eight AIDS organizations were registered as “Foreign Agents” based on the fact that they receive funding from the Global Fund. Inclusion into the list means four times more reporting, expenses for administrative work and increased risks of fines and administrative charges. It also means that the organizations will not be able to receive any money that comes from the governmental sources.
All of the above has created the situation when the AIDS Service NGOs are blocked from the potential governmental funding while at the same time, most international donors have terminated their support to the Russian NGOs. Some donors, including USAID and several UN agencies, had to cease their operations in Russia due to the government pressure, a supporter of advocacy and human rights initiatives in the area of public health, the Open Society Foundations have been blacklisted by the authorities. But many potential donors also believe that a) situation in Russia is hopeless, and there is no way to improve and b) that their support may exacerbate the risks for the NGOs. Our organization believes that its necessary to provide more truthful information to the international partners about the situation in Russia and possibilities to express support and solidarity.
Our team works since 2009 providing daily health services on the streets of Moscow to people who use drugs. We do outreach work to sites where drug users get together, where we give our HIV prevention materials: sterile needles and syringes, condoms, rapid tests for HIV and Hep C, peer counseling, and support as well as referral to various health institutions. We see from 10 to 30 people daily, and last year alone almost three thousand people contacted our small service. We carried out more than 300 consultations on HIV and hepatitis, and in the last three years, we received reports of 735 lives saved with Naloxone we provide to the clients to prevent deaths from overdoses. We also run a street lawyers project, helping drug users to stand for their rights and dignity, providing them with legal skills and empowerment to represent their interests in courts and state institutions. We have a team of 4 lawyers and around 20 social workers and volunteers. We also provide secretarial support to the Forum of people who use drugs in Russia and facilitate documentation and submission of reports on human rights abuse to the state parties as well as the international human rights bodies. Several strategic litigation cases that came out of the Forum’s work aim to improve the legal context in Russia with regards to access to health and justice, including a case currently under review by the European Court of Human Rights on lifting the ban on opioid substitution therapy in Russia and in Crimea.
In 2016 our organization has been registered as a Foreign Agent, and we were subjected to a fine for not volunteering ourselves into the registry. There was some skepticism concerning our ability to continue the work with this status, but we didn’t want to lose our services because of the bureaucratic inadequacy of the Ministry of Justice. We have challenged their decision in court which surprisingly supported us by finding the Ministry’s decision illegal and lifting the fine. We are still listed as a Foreign Agent, but we also fight this decision by the legal means including, if necessary in the European Court of Human Rights. With the help of our partners and supporters, we have generated a fiscal security fund to sustain our work in case of financial sanctions on behalf of the Ministry. We have also received a lot of support for our cause from the mass media and the general public, including the recently started parliamentary debates on the inadequacy of application of the Foreign Agents law to the AIDS prevention NGOs.
Our experience and the experience of like-minded organizations demonstrate that it is still possible to provide AIDS and drug services in Russia, even in the context of political suppression of the NGO work. The only and the most important condition is the commitment to the protection of rights and health of our community. We are learning by doing and hope to develop creative approaches and a practical model of operations for organizations or groups who find themselves in similar politically restricted circumstances not only in Russia but other countries of our region.
We believe that the western NGOs and governmental organizations should not ‘give up on Russia.’ In fact, now more than ever we need the support and solidarity to continue our work and keep saving lives, health, and dignity, despite the political oppression.