Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

Civil society under threat – Experience from Russia

Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Helath and Social Justice (ARF) is a small community based organization located in Moscow. It was established in 2009 with a mission to promote and develop humane drug policy based on tolerance, protection of health, dignity and human rights. The main spheres of our activities are harm reduction service provision, drug policy related advocacy (with a focus on access to OST), drug policy and human rights focused watchdogging and capacity building of PWUD community.

The region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) is the only region in the world where the HIV epidemic continues to grow, and, according to UNAIDS, Russia is, in fact, the „driving force“ of the epidemic in the region – in 2016 it accounted for 81% of new HIV cases in the region. For several years now, there has been a concentrated HIV epidemic in Russia among such key groups affected by HIV as injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers, and in some regions of the country a generalized epidemic among the general population is even being observed. About 70% of all HIV cases in Russia are associated with the use of injecting drugs and still the main way of HIV transmission is parenteral. With more then 1 220 000 cases being registered as on the end of 2017, the coverage by HIV treatment of PLH in country is about 35%.

Having such situation with HIV epidemic in country Russian goverment does not support the implementation of HIV prevention programs among KAPs on a federal level and the last Global Fund HIV grant came to an end in December 2017 so not much funding is available for NGOs in country to do such work. And actually those NGOs still working in the field of HIV prevention are operating in the hostile environment of „foreign agent“ law. In July 2012 Russian government introduced a new version of a law regulating NGOs’ activities: now all NGOs receiving foreign funding and implementing “political activities” should be registered as “foreign agents” which in Russia, taking into accout all the Soviet Union background, is equal of being given an official stamp of a traitor. Needless to say that definition of the “political activity” could be interpreted very broad. After the law was introduced more than 1000 NGOs undergone unexpected inspections by prosecution offices in 2013, few of them were labeled as “foreign agents” and experienced sanctions, few were closed. In June 2014 Ministry of Justice got the right to decide itself which NGO is a “foreign agent” and the recommendation was issued for all governmental structures to avoid dealing with those NGOs named as foreign agent. A month later (right after EECAAC) the Ministry of Justice of RF issued an order to start unscheduled audit and inspections of all NGOs in country dealing with HIV prevention although without any major consequences for such NGOs. Starting from 2016 we see a tendency for NGO working in a sphere of HIV prevention to become included into this list – since then 10 of such NGOs were labeled as foreign agents (out of 76), the last one (Timur Islamov Foundation) was included into this list two weeks ago.

All NGOs registered as foreign agents should mandatory undergo audit inspections every year; quarterly report on their activities to the Ministry of Justice; need to label all printed and electronic materials with a stamp of foreign agent; could be fined for any violation of the provisions of the law.

My organisation was officially labeled by the Ministry of Justice of RF as a „foreign agent“ in June 2016. The political activity which was incriminated to us is our advocacy for introduction of opioid substitution treatment in Russia.

The law works in such a way that NGO should register themselves as foreign agents. If NGO is being registered by the Ministry of Justice – such NGO is automatically being consider as an administrative offender and is fined in the amount equivalent to 5 000 USD which as a substantial amount of money for non-profit organization.

In August 2016 we went to the court against the Ministry of Justice and after two consecutive trials the court has dismissed the case of an administrative offense for the absence of the administrative offense, no fine was charged as well. This was for the first time in law enforcement practice on “foreign agent” law in Russia.

Also, as we don’t consider our self as a “foreign agent” and disagree with the decision of the Ministry of Justice to put us on the list – we tried to challenge this decision in court as well. Unfortunately, in 2017 both the district court and the Moscow City Court refused to meet our claims, leaving the Foundation with the status of a foreign agent. Now we are heading for the European Court on Human Rights with this case.

Yes, we do carry out our work using foreign funding, donations from private foundations and crowdfunding. But this is not because we want to work this way. Over the last few years, we applied for President’s grants at least 3 times so that our work could be funded from Russian sources but our projects were never financed. For a long time already, HIV prevention among KAPs is not funded from public funds in Russia and at seems like nothing will change in next few years as the new HIV strategy till 2020 adopted in October 2016 doesn’t support harm reduction programs.

Till now the status of foreign agent actually didn’t really affect our work – we continue receive foreign funding and provide harm reduction services to people who use drugs on the streets of Moscow. But we are constantly under a threat of being fined for any minor violation of the “foreign agent” law which actually could lead to the closure of the organization. This law is an instrument to control independent NGOs which could be applied at any moment by the government if needed. And it is really sad that NGOs providing HIV prevention services to key affected populations in Russia are being considered as a threat by the government, especially taking into account the situation with HIV epidemic in country.

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