By Péter Sárosi
How will the current war affect harm reduction in Russia? We asked two experts, Michail Golichenko and Alexei Lahov, to share with us their prognosis.
Michail Golichenko, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network:
Russian aggression against Ukraine will have a very deep and long lasting impact on harm reduction and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Russia due to the following reasons:
Harm reduction and HIV services for key affected populations in Russia were funded to a very large extent by international donors. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the USA, UK, Canada, and the EU countries imposed significant restrictions on major Russian banks. In response, Russian authorities imposed restrictions on transactions made using USD and Euros. This will make transactions with Russian counterparts, including CSOs, much more difficult and costly, thus making international funding far less available.
The Russian ruble has lost more than 40% of its value since the invasion. Foreign manufacturers fled the Russian market en masse. As a result, prices for harm reduction and HIV prevention commodities, such as syringes and condoms, have soared, forcing harm reduction projects to deliver fewer such commodities to key populations. Logistics disruptions will negatively affect the manufacture of medicine, including such essential products as ART.
Continuous attacks on CSOs who receive foreign funding
Before the invasion, Russian authorities designated fifteen HIV-service CSOs as foreign agents. A week after the aggression Russian lawmakers tabled amendments to enable the Ministry of Justice to create and maintain a single database of all persons designated as foreign agents, as well as all staff members of NGOs that had been designated as such. Such a database will enable banks and financial control agencies to harass activists and prevent them from receiving any donations from abroad.
By 22 March 2022 Putin’s army had not defeated Ukraine. This is very good news for the free world. Perhaps by April Russia and Ukraine will enter a somewhat temporary peace deal. However, this won’t stop Putin completely. He’ll have to mobilize his supporters against the enemy inside and outside Russia. Progressive civil society, including human rights defenders and harm reduction proponents, will most definitely fall within the circle of enemies. The Russian economy will quickly become the economy of a militaristic state, where every failure will be attributed to the enemy and everyone will have to sacrifice everything for the purpose of “defending” a motherland.
Russia has already left the Council of Europe, meaning that from September 16, 2022, the European Court won’t be available to people living in Russia. Human rights as a concept will fall victim to militaristic mobilization.
Access to information
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities significantly restricted access to information about harm reduction and human rights. During the first three weeks of the invasion, Russian authorities shut down all independent media, Instagram, and Facebook. Authorities will restrict access to information about anything that can demonstrate their failures. This will include information about HIV, drug use, HCV, and TB, especially the details concerning key affected populations. Some official statistics will be available but without any chance to check its accuracy.
Harm reduction and HIV prevention among key populations in Russia will fall victim to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Alexei Lahov, St. Petersburg, Harm Reduction NGOs Coalition “Outreach”:
There will be a clear division into “ours” and “not ours.” Those who receive foreign grants and donations, especially from “unfriendly” countries (and there is a whole list of them now, these are the countries that supported sanctions against Russia), will be tortured even more with checks, will be forced to coordinate their programs with the authorities, and to cut out all “Western” approaches such as harm reduction, gender-responsive and gender-sensitive services, work with LGBTQ communties, etc. It will be good if authorities don’t close this opportunity of receiving funds from abroad altogether. Foreign donors themselves, by the way, have not yet refused to work with Russian NGOs, but even within their ranks there are suggestions to only fulfill the pre-war obligations, and then put cooperation on pause. And priority in grant support from abroad will be given primarily to human rights activists, and not to service organizations such as harm reduction and HIV prevention programs.
Those NGOs that receive state subsidies and have contracts with state institutions, at first informally, and then more and more clearly, will be asked to make a concrete decision: “You want to continue working, you don’t want to leave your beneficiaries, do you?” And, of course, there will also be manipulations with the official statistics, and there will simply be no one to talk about the real state of affairs such as how many people live with HIV, how many PWUD there are, etc. due to the complete destruction of independent media (and the upcoming increase in pressure on opposition deputies). And all this will happen within the next year or two (although judging by how quickly events are unfolding among lawmakers, this could happen even earlier).
Therefore, it is now all the more important to look for like-minded people and allies from among private donors and businesses, who will indirectly express their disagreement with the regime through such support. And, of course, volunteer help is becoming more in demand than ever.
Well, the first signs have appeared: Olga Zanko, deputy chairman of the State Duma committee for the development of civil society, proposed introducing criteria for excluding non-profit organizations from the register of socially oriented organizations for anti-Russian propaganda.
The State Duma at its plenary session on March 10 approved an amendment according to which Russia will create a unified register of information about individuals who perform the functions of a foreign agent or are associated with foreign agents. The Ministry of Justice will maintain a unified register, according to the amendment. It will include individuals who are foreign agents, are included in the register of media foreign agents, as well as citizens who were employees or members of foreign agent NGOs, and public associations foreign agents. In addition, individuals who are politically active and who received money or property assistance from foreign agents may also be placed on the register.