«We are totally left without any financial or moral support to fight not only the epidemic, but also a government, which sabotages the health protection of their citizens».
We already wrote earlier about the so-called “foreign agents law” in Russia and its enforcement on HIV service organizations. This time we talked to Anna Sarang, director of the Andrey Rylkov foundation, our member organisation about the situation and what HIV-service organisations and their partners in the West could do.
AAE: Why is there hardly any reaction from HIV service organisations to some of them being listed as foreign agents?
A: Organisations are very different and correspondingly they have different positions and responses to the enforcement of this law. Some organisations receive domestic funding and don‘t want to lose it. That is why they refuse international funding or practices, which Russian state authorities do not like (for example harm reduction or advocacy for substitution therapy programmes). Most organisations are located in regions where they are defenceless against local authorities who intimidate and threaten them. Therefore, not all are actively seeking to defend their rights and to fight with this blacklisting.
AAE: How did you win in court defending yourselves with litigation? Why others do not go this way?
A: Actually, a lot of organisations are going this way. However, defending themselves in court is very difficult for NGOs: in Russia courts are not independent from the government, and NGOs do not have money to pay expensive lawyers. The Rylkov Foundation is implementing the project "street lawyers", aimed at helping drug users. We are helped by young, very motivated lawyers, currently four of them work in the foundation. In the court the interests of the Rylkov Foundation were represented by the NGO “Lawyers´ Club” who specialize in the topic of "foreign agents". They helped us pro bono and won a trial in the first instinct court.
AAE: What can the organisations do?
A: The foreign agents’ law exists already for several years. NGOs, in order to continue their activities and to help people, have developed some forms of adaptation, new ways of working. The problem is that many donors are not ready to work with other legal entities, with organisations that are not NGOs. Our experience has shown that one of the most inflexible donors today is unfortunately the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; due to the high bureaucratization it will be difficult to adapt its work in the region. After all, there are other countries which stand under the big Russian influence, in particular, countries of Central Asia and it is imaginably that similar legislations to the foreign agents’ law will be passed there too. In any case, not only NGOs but also donors should try to develop new forms to support activist groups involved in HIV prevention in the region.
AAE: How do customers react to your status of foreign agent? How do you feel about the publications about this in the media?
A: Customers do not care. They have become used to the state not being the biggest friend of them. Journalists are interested in writing on this topic. Thus not only the problem of the repression of NGOs, but also the problems with the HIV epidemic are becoming more visible.
AAE: What kind of support could come from “Europe”?
A: In recent years, all international donors have left Russia. It is understandable why they do not want to support corrupt government structures, but why they stopped supporting NGOs, those few organisations, which have remained in the field and continue to fight against AIDS - it is not clear. We are totally left without any financial or moral support. We were left to fight not only with the epidemic, but also with a government, which sabotages the health protection of their citizens. Earlier we were busy going from one training to another, now to get at least some training for social workers of our organization is a great luxury. Currently Russian NGOs are not included even in regional meetings and training activities funded by Western donors. They gave us up as a hopeless case. Sometimes Western donors justify their unwillingness to support the fight against HIV in Russia with concerns about the safety of NGOs themselves. Indeed, work in Russia for NGOs is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous, but if organizations are willing to work and accept the help of Western funds - they can be and must be maintained! Today - this is the only opportunity to contribute to the fight against the epidemics at least on the local level, to help save lives and give people hope to see the day when the political situation in our country will get better.