HIV Prevention Organization in Altai Territory Closes Due to Inability to Pay Court Fine Takie Dela
December 4, 2018
Choice (Vybor), a non-profit HIV service organization, has been forced to close its office in Biysk, Altai Territory, due to its inability to pay a court-imposed fine, reports Kommersant. The NGO had been found guilty of refusing to acknowledge it was a “foreign agent.”
The Altai Territorial Court upheld the ruling of the Biysk City Court, which had fined Choice 150,000 rubles [approx. €2,000] for failing to recognize itself as a “foreign agent” and voluntarily place itself on the registry of “foreign agents.”
According to Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer from Attorneys for Equal Rights who represented Choice in court, on November 30, the organization was forced to close its office and cancel its HIV prevention programs in the region, including programs for intravenous drug users and other risk groups.
“HIV-service NGOS have access to ‘closed’ groups of people who are unwilling to turn to state institutions for help,” Olenichev said in an interview with reporters. “Attacking such NGOS reflects a policy of ‘traditional values,’ a policy focused on criminalizing the actions of people who do not comply with these values or ignore them. By using the law on ‘foreign agents’ to destroy NGOs, the state promotes the growth of HIV-infected people, although by joining forces with NGOs the state could halt the epidemic’s growth.”
The court ruled that several of Choice’s campaigns, during which the NGO handed out HIV express tests (41 people tested positive — TD), over 100,000 clean syringes, and 20,000 condoms for free, were “political” in nature. Choice employees noted they worked with the primary vulnerable groups as defined by the Russian state, using the same methods as specified in the official rules for HIV prevention. The court chose to ignore these arguments.
The court also agreed with the Russian Justice Ministry’s claim that Choice had received foreign funding in 2014 and 2016. Choice received 147,000 rubles from ESVERO, a non-profit partnership, and 272,000 rubles from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Olenichev pointed out that ESVERO had been implementing a project of the Global Fund for Fighting AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which receives funding from the Russian government, in thirty-four Russian regions. The NGO was thus using grants to put the money back into the Russian economy. As for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Choice with funding in rubles, Olenichev claimed there was no evidence in the case file that the organization was foreign. Nevertheless, the court refused to reverse the fine.
According to the latest data from the Russian Health Ministry, in 2017, 53.5% of new cases of HIV infection were caused by sexual intercourse, while 43.6% of new infections were caused by the use of intravenous drugs. According to official statistics, the number of HIV-infected people in Russia is 998,525. Eighty-one percent of them know they are infected.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized Russia as leading Europe in new cases of HIV infections at 71.1 cases per every 100,000 people. The virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex (59%) and intravenous drug use (30%). The Russian Health Ministry has called these figures “extremely inaccurate.”
In late October, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers announced its closure: a court had also fined it 300,000 rubles for violating the law on “foreign agents.” The expert employed by the prosecutor’s office to audit the organization concluded it had “shape[d] preconditions for discrediting the authorities” and “report[ed] about the region’s so-called sore points to [its] foreign partners.”
Thanks to Alexander Feldberg for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
Petersburg Environmental Center Bellona Declared Foreign Agent Interfax
January 16, 2017
On Monday, the Russian Federal Justice Ministry placed the Petersburg enviromental organization Bellona on its list of “foreign agents,” according to the ministry’s website.
“The fact that the organization bears the hallmarks of a non-profit organization, performing the functions of a foreign agent, was established during an unscheduled site inspection carried out by the Justice Ministry’s St. Petersburg office,” read the message on the website.
In March 2015, the Justice Ministry placed the non-profit public environmental organization Bellona Murmansk on the list of “foreign agents.” Six months later, the organization closed.
The non-profit public organization Bellona was formed in 1986. Its central office is in Oslo. Two branches of the environmental organization operated in Russia, in Murmansk and St. Petersburg.
Translation and photo by the Russian Reader; the emphasis is mine
Environmental Rights Center Bellona called a ‘foreign agent’ by Russian government
Charles Digges Bellona
January 16, 2017
In a troubling development for international ecological groups that deal with questions of Russia’s Cold War nuclear legacy, Moscow’s Justice Ministry on Monday named the Environmental Rights Center Bellona as a “foreign agent.”
ERC Bellona, founded by Alexander Nikitin in 1998, became the 158th organization tarred with the foreign agent label since the restrictive 2012 Law on NGOs came into effect.
Nikitin said the group had been undergoing a so-called unplanned check since before the New Year, and had been told it would receive written notification about its status from the Justice Ministry by December 25.
But that date came and went with no notice. Nikitin first learned of the new designation Monday, when Russia’s state newswire TASS began reporting on the organization’s designation as a foreign agent.
ERC Bellona Chairman Alexander Nikitin (Photo: Bellona)
Nikitin was undeterred by the news.
“We expected this decision,” said Nikitin. But he also said it would not impede the organization’s mission.
“This means that we will continue working,” Nikitin said.
“We won’t throw aside our very important work over such small change,” he said. “All of our projects remain, all of our people will remain, and we will find ways to continue our work.”
The group has long had a turbulent relationship with officialdom. When it was founded, Nikitin was on trial for supposedly revealing state secrets in a Bellona report on the decrepit state of Russia’s northern nuclear fleet.
In 2000, Nikitin was fully acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court and became the only individual to ever be cleared of treason charges leveled by Russian or Soviet security services.
The report he and Bellona wrote then became a guidepost document for western governments that wanted to invest in helping Russia secure its Cold War legacy of decommissioned nuclear submarines and military nuclear waste, programs that continue successfully to this day.
ERC Bellona has helped target more than $3 billion worth of international funding to dismantle 200 derelict submarines and other floating nuclear hazards in the Arctic region, like the Lepse nuclear service ship.
Bellona’s efforts were jeopardized in 2012 when the Russian government passed its NGO law stipulating that non-profits operating in whole or in part on foreign funding must register themselves as “foreign agents” with the Justice Ministry if they engage in broadly defined “political activity.”
That group decided to disband itself rather than undertake considerable legal costs to have its name removed from the foreign agent registry.
The decision by the Justice Ministry to list ERC Bellona as a foreign agent dashes considerable recent hopes that the government might cease targeting environmental groups with the foreign agent label.
The Justice Ministry’s report said ERC Bellona was engaged in political activity for “publishing, including via contemporary informational technologies, opinions on decisions taken by the government and policies that it has adopted,” apparently a reference to Bellona’s Russian website, Bellona.ru.
The Justice Ministry also accused ERC Bellona of attempting to “form socio-political opinions and convictions.”
Nikitin has long said ERC Bellona has nothing to do with any kind of political activity. But amendments to the NGO law last year impossibly broadened the notion of political activity.
Those amendments, which were signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in June, “maximally restricted” what NGOs could do, said Nikitin.
Among the more exotic interpretations of what political activity is are the popular practice of sending open letters to Russian politicians at any level of government; participating in gatherings or demonstrations; criticizing laws passed by any level of government; using websites to air opinions about any decision made by the government, and any attempts to influence the drafting of legislation.
The police department in St. Petersburg had recently launched a campaign of demanding financial information from the city’s 158 nonprofits that accept some amount of funding from foreign sources.
Demolishing the Population’s Income Is a Big Mistake by the Authorities
Special to Novaya Gazeta
October 17, 2015 Novaya Gazeta
Why the government prefers oil to people, why poverty could touch half the population, and why social services are losing out to defense spending
In previous years, when it submitted the latest draft budget to the Duma for consideration, the government repeatedly emphasized its social focus: it was all about people, they would say. Now, as the 2016 budget is being worked out, the authorities prefer not to think about this. Spending on the most people-focused items—education and health care—will be significantly reduced. Despite annual inflation’s soaring to nearly 16%, public sector wages will not be indexed at all, while old-age pensions will be indexed only by 4%. Tatyana Maleva, director of the Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) told us how the social sector would cope with all these blows.
Based on your analysis of the projections for the 2016 budget now being submitted to the Duma, which of the social sector issues do you see as most acute?
Those caused by the insufficient indexation of old-age pensions. The government has chosen the most economical solution to this problem.
A 4% indexation does not correlate at all with the expected outlook for inflation. Thus, the budget risks reducing the real value of pensions.
The acuteness of the problem is amplified by the fact that, if we look at the history of incomes in post-reform Russia over the past twenty-five years, we see that pensions have fallen lower than all other sources of income such as wages and benefits. Only in 2010, thanks to the valorization of pension rights [a one-time increase in the monetary value of the pension rights of citizens with time in employment before 2002 – Y.A.] and pulling the minimum pension up to the subsistence level, we pushed the real value of pensions to where it had been at the outset of reforms in the nineties. It had taken twenty years to restore the purchasing power of pensions. But now, during a crisis, they are being demolished again by the budget under consideration. This is a big mistake by the authorities.
But why? After all, budget cuts are not the government’s whim, but hard necessity dictated by the economic crisis.
As events of the last two years have shown, there are basically only two kinds of resources in this country, oil and people. The price of oil has collapsed, but the people are still here.
It is people who are, in fact, the most reliable of all resources. Sooner or later, investment in people produces economic growth. Oil, on the contrary, is impacted by circumstances unconnected with the Russian economy; we cannot influence the market price of oil. It turns out that one key resource makes us hostage to the situation, while we are voluntarily refusing to support the other resource. So I would argue that during the crisis we should look for ways to support people and even risk a larger budget deficit if necessary. Most economists, including me, are forecasting a long crisis. It is only beginning, and demolishing people’s real incomes right at the outset of the crisis is fundamentally wrong.
How painful will the decision to partially index pensions be?
The government thinks that indexing pensions by 4% will affect only the 38 million pensioners. This is misleading. Models of consumption and survival are based not on individual strategies, but on the strategies of households, meaning families. Around 40– 45% of Russian families include pensioners. The experience of the nineties tells us that even miserly pensions, when they were paid, served as a safety cushion against poverty in families when their younger member lost their jobs or faced nonpayment of wages. Because, in this case, pensions support the household’s minimum consumer budget and act as social insurance. Consequently, the forthcoming partial indexation of pensions will reduce the budgets of 40–45% of Russian households. Meaning that the real impact of this decision will be the growing risk of poverty not among pensioners but among nearly half the country’s population.
The government contends that real incomes have fallen by 2–3%, and real wages by 9–10%. Do you agree with these figures?
At one time, incomes showed a more moderate decline, but now they are rushing [downwards] hot on the heels of wages. Because the factors that were propping up incomes, including pensions, have ceased functioning, and incomes are going to fall, maybe even lower than wages. Over the last year, we have experienced a huge reduction in incomes. Basically, the entire growth they had achieved over the previous three or four years has imploded. And there is no reason to expect the growth will be restored. The decline might simply slow down due to arithmetic: the base for comparison will decrease from month to month, and therefore the rate of decline in real wages may turn out to be 7–8%, not 9–10%. But this does not alter the fact the population’s income is likely to be reduced.
How hard is inflation hitting people’s wallets?
Apparently, by year’s end we will be seeing 13–15% inflation. It is inflation that has a total effect on all incomes by devaluing them, regardless of social classes and age groups. But the risks that emerge among different social group because of high inflation are different. For examples, employees face the risk of job losses and cuts in nominal wages. This is already happening. We see cuts in benefits, reductions in allowances, and the axing of bonuses around the country. Moreover, while individuals are capable of combating other causes of income reduction such as job loss or reduction in wages by looking for a new job or retraining, they can do nothing to withstand inflation.
The number of poor people in Russia increased sharply over the past year—by three million people. Are the authorities capable of dealing with this scourge, or does everyone just have to wait for a rise in oil prices?
It is appropriate to recall how poverty has evolved in Russia. In the nineties, over 30% of the population was poor, but this was shallow poverty. When economic growth began in the nineties, poverty was significantly reduced. Many poor Russians moved into the so-called sub-middle class, rather than sinking into outright poverty. Economic growth reduced poverty levels relatively easily all by itself, without a restructuring of social benefits, without support for various social groups. But as soon as the country shifted from growth to recession, this seemingly happy trajectory turned into a disaster for us. Since, during the “fat” years, a reasonable system of targeted social support for the poor was not established, we are now reaping the consequences of its lack. Very many types of social support were eliminated in 2015, and certain “visionary” regions gutted many social benefits as far back as late 2014. Therefore, poverty will grow, and in this sense, indeed, the only hope is a hypothetical rise in the price of oil.
If the price goes up, there will be more money in the budget, and maybe benefits will return. But I am not so certain of this. It is absolutely not a fact that federal revenues are converted into institutions of social support. I think that in this case there will be a serious struggle with a high probability of the social sector’s losing to the military-industrial complex.
The country made this choice long ago, and it is clearly not going to be revisited.
The official unemployment rate in Russia has not exceeded 6%, which is quite a favorable figure by international standards. At the same time, there is lot of evidence that hidden unemployment has grown. What is your overall assessment of the employment sector?
Indeed, 6% is not a high figure at all. Actually, a low unemployment rate has been traditional in Russia in all phases of the economic cycle, whether the economy has been in growth, crisis, boom or recession. Over the quarter century that Russia has been living in the market economy, it has not really experienced unemployment. But economic laws still apply, and during crises, pressure on the market increases. Ultimately, the market extends possibilities for part-time employment, and this can be interpreted as hidden unemployment. People are willing to work a full workweek, but employers offer them part-time work, either half a day or two or three days a week.
The labor market has formed a kind of social contract under which employers save on costs by not dismissing employees, because the Labor Code forces them to bear exorbitant costs when letting employees go. Employees remain employed, which gives them the chance to earn seniority. And the state pretends not to notice any of this, because it also has a stake in the situation. It saves on unemployment benefits and thereby reduces its financial obligations.
Overall, how has the current economic crisis aggravated social problems in the country? Are there factors capable of causing society to protest and take political action?
It is not just the matter of the crisis. Long-term factors are also capable of impacting the social sector. Even during phases of economic growth, many social processes in Russia were not entirely favorable. Take demographics: the long-term trend has been determined by previous generations, and it cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about the fact that each successive generation in Russia will be smaller than the previous generation.
Furthermore, if we look at a longer trend, we have to admit that wages and other types of income have fallen undeservedly much lower than GDP has sunk. This has predetermined very many processes in the economy. Low-wage labor and a low-income population cannot be effective. We have repeatedly been taught this lesson over the last twenty-five years. Coming to terms now with a drop in incomes and wages means recognizing the inefficiency of our human resources. Yes, of course, no one gets rich during a crisis. But it is not a worsening of social tensions in the country due to a sharp collapse in incomes that we should be afraid of. We should be afraid of social apathy, of the population’s withdrawing into itself and washing its hands of the situation. From the socioeconomic viewpoint, this is a step backwards. This apathy can hold us back for many decades. And even if drivers of economic growth do emerge in Russia, and we expect that people will respond quickly, this might not happen.
But what is the source of this apathy?
In the nineties, the population really lent a helping hand to economic reforms by a creating a strong platform for the informal economy. Everyone predicted that society would explode, but it did not happen. The population thus gave an advance to the government that was carrying out reforms. The country managed to make this incredibly difficult transition from one type of economy to another. The people’s patience was rewarded. We are seemingly now in the same situation. However, our vector is pointing down, not up. The current patience of Russians might pull the country down. The population has not been integrated into this economy; it has not become its subject. It has elaborated its own behavioral trajectories, tactics, and strategies, which do not correspond in any way to state policy. The state and the populace lead separate lives.
Are you not idealizing the nineties? After all, even now, during a crisis, people’s living standards and incomes are much higher than they were then.
What saved people from hunger and many people from death in the nineties? First, grassroots unorganized trading, whose symbol was the famous shuttle traders. A huge informal trading sector was formed, flea markets emerged, and so on. But this sector ultimately disappeared, losing out to powerful commercial chains. Second, a powerful sector of private household plots formed in small towns and villages in the nineties. Even if they provided no cash income, people lived off the land. During the years of economic growth, this sector has turned into dacha villages with lawns, and has also ceased to exist as a source of subsistence for households. Third, a small business sector took shape in some form, albeit a specific form with many negative traits. Nevertheless, there was entrepreneurial freedom. Now, all attempts to get small business on its feet have led to nothing. The administrative obstacles erected in recent years have shut the door to the big economy for small business. Fourth, by the early noughties, a small but noticeable nonprofit and NGO sector had been established in Russia. Now, many of these organizations have been labeled “foreign agents.” Formally, [many of] the NGOs continue to operate, but they do not have the ability to act freely as they see fit.
These are the four legs that have been sawed off the Russian market economy stool, and it will not be able to stand up without them. The set of factors that prevented social catastrophe in the nineties is no longer functioning.
Maybe other mechanisms will be developed, but so far I do not see them. So everything is going to depend on the speed, depth, and duration of the crisis. But if we proceed from the most probable assumption, that the crisis will shift into a protracted, sticky recession, the quality of services will fall, despite the fact that, purely superficially, universities, schools, and clinics will continue to function. We do not know yet how the population will respond economically to these challenges. It has very few options. In fact, its only option is to wait for mercy from the state. People have been prevented from taking care of themselves.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ilya Matveev for the suggestion.
Dront’s certificate of inspection was brought to our offices on Tuesday. I felt very bad about it all day. Plus, there was a lampoon on a stupid Nizhny Novgorod site (which I will not advertise here, of course) in which I was targeted personally. I even recalled the favorite joke of my youth, which I haven’t recalled for over ten years.
Piglet comes to Winnie the Pooh’s house and sees that the whole place is filled with blood. The bear is lying on the floor, his stomach ripped open, his guts hanging from the chandelier.
Piglet anxiously asks, “Winnie, Winnie, do you feel bad?
“Do I feel bad? Do I feel bad? Yes, it’s curtains for me!”
Because the problem is not the obvious disadvantages of this status, which we will legally challenge, of course. The problem is “faith in humanity.”
For an evening I lost my faith in humanity.
What has to be going through a person’s head to seek proof of “political activity” amongst people who protect nature on behalf of all citizens, and hence them as well? What kind of person do you have to be, for example, to classify money paid to do an analysis of a proposal to raise the level of the Cheboksary Reservoir as foreign financing, since the money came from the WWF (the Russian office of WWF, by the way)? I just hope that those three beauties from the Ministry of Justice who inspected us live somewhere in the Leninsky District, and their houses will be flooded when the reservoir rises.
Oh, to find out where they live and never to stand up for that corner of the city again. Let them build all the auto service centers and waste incineration plants right there!
And why do so-called patriots (we were inspected at the behest of the National Liberation Movement) so hate the natural environment in their own country? On the other hand, they love power in all forms. This phenomenon, incidentally, has haunted me for a while. So some people have decided they are “Russian patriots,” and what do they do? That’s right, they set out to spoil the lives of people trying to do something good for their country. I still remember those young men, “Russian patriots,” who six years ago tried to attack me, a pregnant Russian woman, just because my female friends and I were coming back from a protest rally against a nuclear power plant. Of course, there are different views on atomic energy, and debates can be very emotional, but it’s a matter for debate, damn it, not a matter for a fist fight. And they would have attacked us, and maybe even stabbed us with something, but we ran and got on a bus, and the driver closed the door on them. One young man with wicked eyes kept banging his fists against the windows, spewing out his anger and hatred. Roman Zykov, that wasn’t you, by chance? And now you’ve grown up and become an informer?
During its April 17, 2015, broadcast, the NNTV program Itogi nedeli aired a segment on the “foreign agent” case against Nizhny Novgorod’s Dront Ecological Center. The segment begins at the 1:40 mark, with the presenter explaining that the Ministry of Justice launched its audit of Dront after receiving a complaint from Roman Zykov of the National Liberation Organization (NOD). Zykov is interviewed on camera beginning at the 5:25 mark. He is identified as NOD’s “information officer.”
To be honest, I don’t understand any of this. I can’t get my head around it. I don’t believe there are people who really are happy, for example, if a highway or an asphalt plant is built near their home in place of a forest. People can be indifferent to environmental topics or indulge in pessimism because “everything has been decided, nothing can be changed.” I have seen this many times. But for people sincerely to desire the deterioration of their habitat, that I can not imagine. And I don’t understand how it can be called “patriotism.”
Well, the heck with them, the informants.
So the certificate of inspection was delivered to us. Here it is, this wonderful document. Of course, we have proven to be “foreign agents”: the law interprets the concept as broadly as possible. The inspectors had to prove a quite simple theorem: that we have foreign money (we can check off that box), and that we are engaged in political activity, that is, that we haven’t exactly been sitting on our asses but have been doing something. (Here we could check off a hundred boxes if we so desired.)
And the law does not require a logical connection between these parts of the theorem. It matters not a squat that the money was for one thing, and something else was deemed “political activity.”
Damn, when I was in university, “politics” meant being involved in the struggle for power. Nowadays, if you say it would be good idea to amend a law, you’re already a nasty political intriguer. And even if you praise a law, you’re an intriguer as well, because it is none of your damn business to evaluate laws.
You might think that all Russian environmental legislation is absolutely perfect: that it was handed down to us in the sacred tablets, and each word was cast in gold. This, to put it mildly, is not true. Moreover, these laws are constantly amended and changed, meaning the authorities are aware of their imperfections. It suffices to mention the new law on waste management. It was completely turned inside out and redrafted. I don’t really understand why we should stop criticizing laws.
The whole business with foreign money is also ridiculous.
After all, it doesn’t matter to the inspectors that the funds have been earmarked, for studying turtles, for example. (And, in fact, protection of animals is not deemed political activity, and that is stipulated in the law.) Or for seminars on sustainable development. Or for a public impact assessment of the proposal to raise the level of the Cheboksary Reservoir. No one except the WWF provided any money for this—no state agencies, no legislators, no businessmen—although the entire Nizhny Novgorod Region rose up as one against the proposal.
And it doesn’t matter that all these funds were not only earmarked but were quite small sums (less than one percent of our annual budget) and could not significantly have impacted our operations. We would have criticized the same laws even without this money. But who is interested in logic if you just have to tick off some boxes?
In short, the young female inspectors proved the theorem to their own satisfaction. But I just don’t have the heart to call them lawyers, because, for example, they don’t distinguish between federal and municipal (i.e., local) government. (Maybe employees of the Ministry of Justice don’t necessarily have to have a law degree?) Apparently, the way they see it, all power is sacred and should be beyond criticism.
Well, my depression has passed. It has been nice to see that many people support us and have stood up for us. It has been nice to read your kind words.
P.S. I will not approve any vicious comments, if they show up.
NB. You can see the list of Russian NGOs included in the registry of “foreign agents” (as of May 15, 2015) here. This list is constantly updated, apparently.