“Foreign agent” charges against Russian harm reduction NGO dropped, but HIV organizations still a target

September 13, 2016

A Moscow court recently dismissed the charges against Russian harm reduction NGO Andrey Rylkov Foundation (ARF) for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” While this is no doubt a victory for ARF, the charges were dropped on procedural grounds, which unfortunately does not prevent similar charges being brought against other HIV organizations or indeed ARF itself in the future.

Since 2012, non-governmental organizations in Russia that receive funding from abroad and engage in “political activity” have been required to register as “foreign agents,” making them an easy target for scrutiny and harassment by the state. The designation also significantly limits both their ability to cooperate with state bodies and their eligibility for state funding within Russia. Though “political activity” has encompassed human rights work since 2013, until now HIV service organizations were considered immune as their activities were considered to be in the domain of health care, prevention and protection. But between February and July 2016, it appears this immunity was lifted, and now any HIV-service organization that demands government accountability is engaged in “political activity.”

On June 29, 2016, the Ministry of Justice added ARF to its list of “foreign agents,” providing the following examples of ARF’s “political activity”:

  1. Picketing outside the headquarters of the Federal Drug Control Service, holding signs that read “Support, Don’t Punish” and asking for legislative amendments that would legalize opioid substitution therapy (OST)
  2. Writing, rather than merely publishing on its website, an article about the Eurasian Network of People who Use Drugs and publishing its letter to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
  3. An interview with ARF President Anya Sarang with the headline “All the initiatives by the Federal Drug Control Service on drug addiction treatment is populism”

The Constitutional Court in 2014 ruled that the restrictions resulting from “foreign agent” status do not violate the right of freedom of association, and NGOs with this designation should be able to continue operating. However, in practice, such a designation results in obtrusive inspections and onerous reporting requirements for the NGO, and negatively affects its interaction with authorities. Often, harsh fines exceeding a Russian citizen’s average annual income are levied for failing to submit necessary activity reports or an application for voluntary inclusion in the foreign agent registry, or for disseminating materials without the stigmatizing disclaimer “the materials published and/or disseminated by a non-profit organization performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The crushing penalties have left few options for NGOs that receive foreign funding, with some choosing to dissolve.

Most professional HIV service provider NGOs in Russia, similar to ARF, receive or have received foreign funding in the past. In fact, technical and financial support from abroad has been one of the main factors enabling these NGOs to become truly effective and efficient in offering the few evidence-based HIV prevention services available for key populations in Russia. This new drive to add HIV service NGOs to the list of “foreign agents” seems to be an attempt to exclude NGOs with a history of foreign support — considered more independent and less loyal to the authorities — from the roster of potential recipients of state funding (which Russian authorities have stated they will increase for HIV service NGOs). NGOs receiving foreign funding that plan to continue operating need to be prepared now that HIV service organizations will be recognized as foreign agents: they should consider transferring their most controversial activities to a newly created organization (probably outside of Russia), as well as allocate some funds for increased administrative costs and paying hefty fines, which experience has shown soon follow.

Amidst the confusion, one thing for certain is that the situation in Russia is constantly changing. A locally-based response and the flexibility of all partners (including donors) will ensure that the struggle to adopt evidence-based HIV prevention, treatment, care and support based on the respect and promotion of human rights will continue.