Harvard Agents Association
The Justice Ministry Has Fined an NGO for Medical Research
December 21, 2016
The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association, an NGO in the Samara Region, has appealed the Justice Ministry’s decision identifying it as a “foreign agent.” The organization was cited for grants it has been receiving from Harvard for over twelve years to study the health of people who live in enivornmental disaster areas. The Justice Ministry additionally cited the work of its doctors in preventing HIV as “contrary to Russian national interests.” The association is on the verge of closure, despite the unprecedented support it has received from town officials, physicians, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association was established in 1999.
“Chapayevsk produced pesticides for many years, which led to increased levels of dioxins,” says Oleg Sergeyev, head of the association and a Ph.D. in medicine. “Increased mortality was recorded in the town. The local hospitals were not coping due to a lack of funds and equipment. So the town’s doctors united into an NGO to try and solve the problem.”
Located 45 kilometers from Samara, the town, whose population is 73,000, was founded in 1909 as a settlement built round an explosives factory. In 1926, a chemical weapons factory went into operation, later converted into a fertilizer plant. In 1999, the State Ecology Committee declared the town an “environmental emergency area.” Chapayevsk received a total of 1.742 billion rubles in federal subsidies, and its status as an environmental emergency area was rescinded in 2005. In 2008, the mayor of Chapayevsk officially proposed resettling the city.
In 2003, the association launched a long-term research study, entitled “Dioxins, Pubertal Growth, and the Development of Boys,” in cooperation with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“With the consent of their parents, we selected 516 boys between the ages of eight and nine, and have been carefully tracking their health every year since then. Now they are young men between the ages of 19 and 22,” says Oleg Sergeyev. “We have seen how the dioxins and pesticides have impacted the growth, development, and especially the reproductive health of the men.”
The researched has been funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US. In 2003, the NIH made a long-term research grant to the project, and in 2010, it extended the grant for another six years.
“During this period, we received 65.2 million rubles,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “34.2 million was spent on the salaries of seventeen staff members, 21.4 million rubles, on equipment and supplies, and 9.6 million rubles, on social benefit payments.”
The association’s second focus has been HIV prevention.
“In the late 1990s, Chapayevsk ranked third in the region in the spread of HIV,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “This was due to injecting drug use. The drugs were easily accessible here.”
Physicans hit the streets to engage in harm reduction work, which has involved them in meeting with drug users, handing out brochures and free condoms, persuading people to get tested for HIV, collecting used syringes, and supplying clean syringes. Harm reduction programs in Chapayevsky have covered around 800 people annually (a little over one percent of the population). According to doctors, this is around a third of the town’s injecting drug users.
In 2014, the Justice Ministry’s regional office audited the association twice, concluding the NGO was not engaged in political activity. In October 2016, these very same officials changed their opinion and demanded the association be added to the list of “foreign agents.” The Justice Ministry’s Samara office failed to respond promptly to our request for information, but Kommersant has obtained a copy of the audit report. Officials deemed it a violation that Oleg Sergeyev sits on the Samara Regional Duma’s NGO Council and has been involved in the hearings of two committees, on physical education and healthy lifestyles, and on providing social services to the populace. In 2013, one commission recommended that regional MPs ban cigarette ads at public transport stops and in shops. In 2015, it recommended that regional MPs add the phrase “citizens are responsible for maintaining their own health” to the law “On Basic Public Healthcare.” The auditors construed this as “political activity financed by foreigners.”
The association’s work in preventing HIV has also not escaped the auditors’ attention. The Justice Ministry dubbed the needle exchange and the distribution of condoms by physicians the “inculcation of practices contrary to Russian national interests.” In the wake of the audit, the officials asked the court to rule the association a “foreign agent.” The court granted the request, additionally fining the NGO 300,000 rubles and Oleg Sergeyev 50,000 rubles for not registering themselves voluntarily.
“I don’t know where to get the money,” says Mr. Sergeyev.
According to him, no grantmaking organization permits the payment of fines out funds allocated for scientific research.
“It’s a matter of scientific reputation,” say Mr. Sergeyev. “If they had labeled us an ‘organization receiving foreign funding,’ then for God’s sake we would have enrolled ourselves in such a registry. But we have been accused of working for another country, although we have always acted in the interests of our town.”
The organization filed an appeal last week. As candidates for “foreign agent” status, the physicians have received unprecedented support from researchers at the Institute of Genetics and the Institute of Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as from the town’s chief narcologist.
Chapayevsk’s Mayor Dmitry Blynsky also wrote an official letter to the Justice Ministry. (He resigned in November 2016, but signed the letter while still in office.) According to Blynsky, the NGO’s collaboration with Harvard “has been of great benefit to the town.”
“The medical and lab equipment that has been procured has been used to treat the populace of Chapayevsk. In view of Chapayevsk’s subsidized budget, another important aspect of attracting foreign financing has been the creation of jobs for medical professionals,” wrote Blynsky.
According to the ex-mayor, the outcomes of the NGO’s long-term research studies have been used to develop public programs for the town’s social and environmental rehabilitation.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Tamara Koganzon for the heads-up