World AIDS Day is one of the few news cycles when Russia’s state-controlled media will write about HIV/AIDS. It is unlikely, however, that the reports will explore the current reality: Russia is the new AIDS hotspot among countries stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia; the rate of infection is growing by at least 10 percent every year; and everyone in Russia is at risk.
In the past four years, the Russian government has systematically engaged in a crackdown on the LGBT community and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As local anti-gay propaganda laws gained momentum and the atmosphere grew more oppressive, AIDS awareness and health and education programs have been shuttered.
Simultaneously, the number of people living with HIV (PLHIV) has more than doubled according to statistics provided by the Federal AIDS Center of Russia—and that’s before final 2015 numbers are out. In 2011, there were 500,000 known HIV infections in Russia. According to even the most conservative estimates, this number will surpass one million by December 2015. Advocates in Russia say that the number is actually twice as high again.
As Russia has seen a remarkable increase in HIV/AIDS cases, infection rates in other emerging economies, such as the BRICS countries, have stabilized. Injected-drug users are still the most at-risk group. However heterosexual sex is the fastest growing means of infection, and in 2014, accounted for 40 percent of new cases. HIV testing of the most at-risk groups has decreased in Russia by nearly 20 percent, according to the Federal AIDS Center statistics, and infection among men having sex with men (MSM) is increasing in metropolitan areas.
Despite a promised funding increase for HIV-related programs in 2006, 2008, and again in 2014, the Russian government fell short of making of HIV prevention and treatment a priority. On top of that, by focusing on the criminalization of drug use and the brutal stigmatization of key populations at risk, Russian government policies are contributing directly to the deadly epidemic. Any bid to end AIDS is undermined by punitive policies and corrupt law enforcement, rather than the introduction of comprehensive harm reduction programs.
Lyudmila Stebenkova, a medical doctor and prominent Moscow politician, more accurately reflects the voice of Russian officialdom. She told the daily newspaper Kommersant:
“[Director of Federal AIDS Center Vadim Pokrovsky] acts like a typical agent against the interests of our country. He tells stories about the spread of HIV in Russia. According to several studies, sex education in schools will only increase children's interest in sex and lead to a surge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Instead of the distribution of condoms, we should promote to our youth becoming faithful partners and to call for the creation of a healthy family—this is much more effective.”
It’s clear that the government of President Vladimir Putin has decided to significantly reduce any outside influence over the country’s AIDS policies, which prevents foreign financial and technical assistance or cooperation with the international AIDS community. The Putin administration’s unrelenting efforts to reestablish Russia as a world power has encouraged the medical community and officials to ignore all international AIDS policy recommendations and technical assistance, while banning the presence of foreign NGOs.