After the recent elections to the State Duma in Russia last Sunday, it became clear that the legislative strategy of the Russian Parliament regarding civil society is unlikely to change and civil society in Russia will continue to face obstacles. In recent months we have seen the further worsening of the situation in the Russian Federation related to the application of the so called “foreign agents’ law” on the NGOs working in the field of prevention and health care.
According to the law any organization that receives foreign funding and conducts any political activity has to be registered as “foreign agent”, which causes bureaucratic difficulties and more complicated, time and resource consuming financial audits. Despite the fact that organizations working in the field of prevention and health care are exceptions to the law (see. The Federal Law number 121 Article 2.6), five HIV-service organizations have already been added to the register. On the AIDS Action Europe website we reported about Harm Reduction Network ESVERO. The latest organization that has fallen under the law was “Panacea” from the city of Kuznetsk, which ultimately chose liquidation instead of inclusion into the register of foreign agents.
Despite the fact that civil society organisations play a key role in the national strategy on HIV till 2020, the state continues to put pressure on HV-service organisations regardless it occurs in times of rapid growth of HIV infection. These organizations are working directly with key populations doing, among other things, the most important prevention work, which is recognized by the Russian Ministry of Health as a main strategy to combat the high mortality in Russia. Summarizing, there are a lot of legal and administrative contradictions in the actions from the side of the Russian State.
As of today, the following HIV-service organisations have been registered as foreign agents:
1. Center for Health and Social Welfare “Sibalt”
2. Saratov regional public organisation “Society”
3. Foundation for Assistance to protect the health and social justice Andrew Rylkov
4. Non-commercial partnership ESVERO
5. Fund “Panacea”, worked in the city of Kuznetsk (Penza region)
The reasons why these organizations were registered as foreign agents are “their impact on decision-making by public authorities aiming at changing state policies; conducting public events; and formation of public opinion.” Due to the wide scope of the law, any public activity may fall under this definition. Organisations on the list are also required to mark their products with the label “foreign agent”, or they are subjects to heavy fines. While some Moscow-based organisations still resist and look for legal solutions in court, smaller organisations without resources have no other choice but to surrender and submit to liquidation which is the only way to avoid high fines.
The main objective of this law and its selective application strategy is forcing civil society organizations to self-censorship leading to the discontinuation of contacts and collaboration with international partners and stopping sharing best practices.
Because of the threat of registration and liquidation of the services and organization, and also of the responsibility these organizations feel for the communities they are working with, some organisations refuse to participate in completely innocent projects that include cooperation with foreign or international organizations or donors. Berliner AIDS-Hilfe, a member of the AAE network, recently lost one of its partners form Kaliningrad, with whom they planned a volunteers exchange project. After the change of the governor in Kaliningrad, the organisation decided to completely stop foreign cooperation as it might be a ground to be registered on the foreign agent list.
With the disappearance of these organizations the already dramatic Russian HIV-situation will only get worse. One can only hope that Russian decision makers will abandon their approach based on ideology and replace it with human right and evidence based interventions.