Russia’s HIV epidemic dismissed as part of Western ‘information war’

Russia’s HIV epidemic dismissed as part of Western ‘information war’

(latest in Sydney Morning Herald)

Even as a UN conference began last week in New York, taking up the subject of ending AIDS, a Kremlin-backed research institute claimed the West is using HIV and AIDS as part of an “information war” against Russia.

The Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISR) presented a report to the Moscow City Council last week on HIV in Russia where, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, rates of HIV infection are on the rise.

According to RISR deputy director Tatyana Guzenkova and her colleagues, the real goal of the West’s fights against HIV “is the implementation of the economic and political interests of US-led global structures, relying on an extensive network of international and quasi-NGOs.”

But none of this comes as a shock to Anya Sarang, head of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

“We’re not surprised at these kinds of statements anymore,” she tells me from Moscow, where she works with drug users and sees the scale of Russia’s growing HIV epidemic firsthand.

“It’s the usual thing in Russia now to discard science for ideology.”

There are two models for fighting HIV, according to the RISR report. The Western model, it says, is made of “neoliberal ideological content, insensitivity towards national sensitivities and over-focus of certain at-risk groups such as drug addicts and LGBT people.”

The Russian model, on the other hand, “takes into account the cultural, historical, and psychological characteristics of the Russian population, and is based on a conservative ideology and traditional values.”

The Russian model

The science says the Russian model isn’t working.

Approximately 93,000 new HIV cases were reported in Russia in 2015 – a per-capita rate almost fifteen times that of Australia. A million people in Russia have HIV, including almost one percent of all pregnant women – the threshold for a generalised epidemic.
Dr Vadim Pokrovsky heads up Russia’s federal AIDS research centre and is a longtime critic of the Kremlin’s HIV policies.

“The last five years of the conservative approach have led to the doubling of the number of HIV-infected people” Pokrovsky told AFP last year.

The arch-conservative head of Moscow City Council’s health committee, Lyudmila Stebenkova, described Dr Pokrovsky last year as a “typical agent working against the national interests of Russia.”

Not surprisingly, Pokrovsky doesn’t think much of RISR’s report.

“They use some questionable sources of information and incorrectly interpret the data they present,” he tells me from Moscow.

“Their arguments are not convincing.”

The Western contraceptive industry

According to Igor Beloborodov, one of the RISR report’s co-authors, attitudes to condom use is one of the main factors behind Russia’s HIV epidemic.

“The [Western] contraceptive industry is interested in selling their products and encouraging underage people to engage in sex,” he told Moscow City Council.

He and his RISR colleagues argue in the report that condoms “create the illusion of the safety of sex” and should not be “gratuitously distributed” in Russian schools. The solution, they say, is to completely abstain from sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage.

Dr Pokrovsky is dismissive of arguments like these.

“This is traditional rhetoric that was used thirty years ago and still used in conservative circles throughout the world. It is not particularly troubling evidence.”

Pokrovsky also takes issue with the report’s argument that “risk elimination” – in other words, completely giving up drugs and extramarital sex – is superior to harm reduction approaches.

He stresses that “risk elimination” is actually impossible. “The experts who understand this know that people cannot just give up extramarital sex,” he says, “and people dependent on drugs cannot just stop using them.”

‘AIDS and drugs will solve each other’

Even though 60 per cent of HIV-positive Russians are injection drug users, methadone replacement therapy remains illegal in Russia despite clear evidence of its effectiveness.

It’s an approach that has led some commentators to question if the Kremlin is even that interested in the fight against HIV at all.

“I have had conversations with Russian government officials who have said things like ‘AIDS and drugs will solve each other,'” Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Program at the Open Society Foundations (an organisation funded by frequent Kremlin target George Soros), told The Verge.

“So I think there’s some question about whether or not Russia is actually committed to protecting the lives of everyone, or whether drug users fall into the category of ‘socially unproductive citizens’ the state might just as well do without.”

In Moscow, Anya Sarang worries about the impact the “information war” rhetoric from the Kremlin and its allies might have on Russian with HIV.

“It send the completely wrong message,” she says of the RISR report. “Basically this report is saying that the HIV problem is something made up by western media.”

“The Russian population is really psyched up now with this whole anti-Western ideology and discourse,” she warns. “People might take this seriously and think ‘oh, HIV isn’t a Russian problem – it’s just a part of the information war.'”

Some reflections on KyivPride2016

Some reflections on KyivPride2016

This is my small act of straight-ally solidarity with my LGBT brothers, sisters, friends and family – my account of Kyiv’s Pride march and an attempt to spread some good news after yesterday’s unspeakable act of homophobic violence in Orlando.


What a difference a year makes.

Last year’s Kyiv Pride march was attended by a few hundred brave souls, who were met in Kyiv’s northern suburbs by far-right thugs wielding fists, flares and even firecrackers packed with nails.

This year looked like it was shaping up to be much of the same. A few months ago one far-right leader publicly called for participants to be killed. Another one promised a few weeks ago that the Pride march was going to be a “bloodbath.”

It wasn’t.

Thanks to organizers, who worked with local and national governments to arrange for more than 6,000 police officers and national guards to protect the more than 1,500 marchers, Kyiv’s Pride march in the city centre on Sunday was safe.

Riot police, shields on standby, and national guardsmen held a perimeter around a few blocks of the city, including around the leafy sprawl of Shevchenko Park. Metal detectors framed the few entrances to the interior, pat-downs and bag checks greeting you before you could get inside.

One of the entrances

If there was any nervous tension before the march started, I certainly didn’t feel it.

There were a handful of anti-gay protesters inside the perimeter, a few off to the side holding signs like “No to gay propaganda in Ukraine,” like you might see from a street preacher or someone in an American or Canadian city.

To their credit, they weren’t getting in anyone’s face. No one was getting in theirs. When I did see and hear discussions between marchers and anti-gay activists like them – I deliberately use the term “discussions” here – they weren’t particularly tense or loud.

You know when you’re overhearing an argument and you think “damn, this might escalate”? Not here. I’ve heard angrier arguments at baseball games.

Some of the anti-gay protesters inside the perimeter

I recall two disruptive protesters in total getting bundled away. One got carried off fifteen or twenty minutes before the march started, followed by hordes of journos with cameras (not me, because I was too slow). Another got surrounded nearer to when the march was about to start, shouting something about ‘пидорасы’ (‘faggots’), which is a surefire way to get yourself justifiably bundled away from a gay-friendly event.

As the cops flanked the march and it started to inch forward, the aforementioned handful of anti-gay protesters got shuffled off to the side by the cops, out of the way, tossing a few anti-gay fliers into the air like oversized confetti.

police line
The police line, the march about to start

The marchers themselves were a mix of LGBT Ukrainians, allies and friends. A few Ukrainian MPs (more than last year), a German MEP, foreign ambassadors and embassy staff, families with children and even two fighters from the Aidar battalion.

With drums beating the march made its way to the corner, taking a left at Lva Tolstoho (Leo Tolstoy) and started to make its way down the hill (for the uninitiated, Kyiv has way, way too many hills).

Drums kept beating. Cheers and chants kept coming. A few people looked on from their balconies and behind storefronts, looking more…well, curious than anything else.

After about twenty minutes the march made it to the bottom of the street, to Lva Tolstoho square, and that was that.

Velyka Vasylevska street was fenced off at both its north and south ends, with cops and national guards holding fort against a handful of demonstrators and far-right thugs waiting outside.

bottom of lva tolstoho
Lva Tolstoho square

The square itself was full of buses waiting to ferry marchers out of the city centre to safety, and the metro was ready with special cars to shuttle other marchers away to a station in the southwest of the city.

bus guard
Police guarding buses to ferry away marchers

I was on one of these cars, each one guarded by a pair of police officers in full face shields who, at least in my car, made people feel safe enough to belt out an impromptu rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem as the doors slid shut.

I eventually made my way back into the city centre. Just as the march organizers had warned, there were a few far-right thugs roaming around central Kyiv looking for a fight. Outside the entrances to Teatralna station at Pushkinska and Bohdana Khmelnytskoho, a few anti-gay protesters (peaceful, from what I could see) were holding court with banners.

Anti-gay protesters by Teatralna station. “Papa, Mama, children, home / Ukraine is not Sodom!”

Across on another corner maybe ten far-right thugs stood around, one wearing a ‘Misanthropic Division’ t-shirt, the same gang/hooligan firm/what-have-you that violently broke up Lviv’s equality festival in March. Right around the corner from them was a (larger) group of cops on the ready. I didn’t stick around much longer, but if these barely-out-of-high-school-looking kids with tattoos found trouble, it was likely with them.

Since yesterday I’ve only heard about a few instances of violence after the march, though I know how much of an issue under-reporting of anti-LGBT violence is in this country.

I know it’s going to take a while for the LGBT community to build a proper home in Ukraine. Progress on LGBT rights here isn’t going to come overnight, and I know it’s not going to come without its share of heartbreak.

But yesterday I saw some brave people building that foundation. And when I hear that LGBT Ukrainians are happily telling journalists things like “I feel like I’ve been given a voice,” I think – even as a naïve straight guy from the suburbs – that I’m right to feel optimistic.

Ironically (and sadly) enough, I think President Obama described it best yesterday, when he said that Orlando’s Pulse is more than just a club – it is:

“a place of solidarity and empowerment, where people have come together to raise awareness to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights.”

Feels like he could have just as easily been describing KyivPride2016.

Poll: Savchenko the most trusted political figure in Ukraine

Poll: Savchenko the most trusted political figure in Ukraine

Nadia Savchenko is the most trusted political figure in Ukraine, according to a new Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) poll.

Savchenko is the most trusted and least mistrusted political figure in Ukraine, but she’s also the political figure Ukrainians know the least about: 31% of them said it was ‘hard to say’ when they were asked to state whether they trusted her or not.

The level of trust in Savchenko as a politician varies across regions (below) but as I’ll explain there’s a lot of comparing-apples-to-oranges business going on with these numbers.

Nadia Savchenko Do not trust Trust Hard to say Don’t know
Ukraine 32.7 35.0 30.8 1.4
West 20.0 53.4 25.7 0.9
Central 36.5 35.5 27.6 0.3
South 29.8 26.2 38.7 5.3
East 35.3 21.3 40.9 2.5
Donbas (UA-gov’t controlled only) 63.6 10.1 26.4 0.0

Even in those regions where trust looks like it’s lower in Savchenko, it’s still actually quite high in comparison to other politicians:

  • In south Ukraine, she’s the fourth least mistrusted on the list (out of 25 names) and the third most trusted.
  • In east Ukraine, she’s also the fourth least mistrusted, and the fifth most trusted.

…and those Donbas numbers. Yeah, those definitely threw me for a loop at first.

But comparing trust in politicians in Donbas compared to other parts of Ukraine is the real clever fruit-related-comparison metaphor here, and that’s because people in Donbas barely trust anyone on that list.

That’s why, when you compare Savchenko’s level of trust in Donbas to her peers, she’s actually the sixth-least mistrusted (out of 25, remember) and, despite how low that 10.1% looks, she’s actually the third-most trusted politician in Donbas. So, yeah.

What’s good for Nadia Savchenko? A lot more Ukrainians trust her than any of her peers.

What’s not so good? A lot of people still say they don’t trust her (whether that’s a symptom of Ukrainians’ general sense of cynicism and mistrust in the political class or something specifically about her, I don’t know), and a lot of people don’t know very much about her – yet.

Let’s get to know Ukraine’s IDPs

Let’s get to know Ukraine’s IDPs

The UN’s World Refugee Day is June 20. It’s a day to draw public attention to the tens of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world who’ve had to flee their homes because of war, conflict or persecution.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of IDPs in Ukraine. There are 1.7 million IDPs across the country who have been forced to flee Donbas and Crimea over the past two years, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to return home anytime soon.

Yesterday the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and the UNHCR released results from a timely poll of Ukrainians’ attitudes towards internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine.

It was really two surveys – one a representative in-person survey of Ukrainians as part of KIIS’s regular omnibus (data from which I’ve bored people with before), and the other a telephone survey just of Ukrainians in cities with large populations (CLP in the report and the rest of this piece) of IDPs.

It’s a really effective way of parsing out the differences in attitudes between people who actually have met and know IDPs and those who haven’t. And they’re certainly different.

Tonight’s episode of ‘Talking to IDPs’

Turns out most Ukrainians haven’t actually had that much contact with IDPs in their communities. Only 17% of Ukrainians country-wide have had a conversation with an IDP, and 39% haven’t ever spoken with an IDP nor know of any living in their vicinity. Even in CLPs less than half (47%) have actually spoken to an IDP.

But as you can see in the crappy screenshot I’ve taken of Figure 1.2 of the report, people in CLPs are more likely to know about IDPs where they live, to have spoken to some, to have some as neighbours/friends or relatives and/or to live with some. Not surprising.

Figure 1.2

These numbers differ across Ukraine and again, not surprisingly, they mirror the distribution of IDPs across the country. Look at the bottom graph – in western Ukraine just under half (49%) of respondents have never spoken with an IDP nor know of any living in their vicinity, compared to 41% in central Ukraine, 34% in southern Ukraine and 26% in eastern Ukraine.

How do Ukrainians feel about IDPs?

The vast majority of Ukrainians have positive or neutral attitudes towards IDPs, particularly those who actually live in cities with large IDP populations.

Across the entire country, 43% of Ukrainians said they had positive attitudes IDPs, while 58% did in CLPs. Not many Ukrainians hold negative views of IDPs – only 6% across all Ukraine and a minuscule 2% in CLPs.

Ukrainians’ opinions of IDPs haven’t changed much in the past two years. Five percent of people across Ukraine said their attitudes towards IDPs had improved – compared to 10 percent in CLPs – and 7 percent said their attitudes had worsened, compared to only 3% in CLPs.

While there are a few regional differences in attitudes towards IDPs, these attitudes look to be more associated with (lack of) familiarity with IDPs than anything else.

Look at Figure 3.4, particularly the top green bar(s) for western Ukraine and western Ukrainian CLPs. In western Ukraine negative stereotypes of IDPs are more common – but remember that western Ukrainians had less contact and less familiarity with IDPs than people in any other part of Ukraine.

Figure 3.4

What’s more, those negative stereotypes are much less common in western Ukrainian cities with large IDP populations, much like everywhere else in the country. While almost a quarter of western Ukrainians think that IDPs “support separatism,” less than one in ten western Ukrainians in CLPs do. This tells me that the best way for a Ukrainian to understand ‘what IDPs think’ is to meet and chat with some – just like, say, in Canada or the US, the best way to understand what Syrian refugees are like is to…you know, meet some.

For reference, here’s Figure 3.3 of the “positive” characteristics, where you can see a similar trend the other way, particularly when it comes to the idea that IDPs are “very vulnerable and need help.”

Figure 3.3

What’s more, people who have more contact with IDPs and/or know some tend to be more likely to be willing to hire them or to rent them a place to live.

Table 10

Familiarity, it seems, doesn’t have to breed contempt.

With my stats hat on, I have to acknowledge that there could be other reasons for all this. Are more positive/less negative views of IDPs more related to factors like income/socio-economic status and level of education that are higher in big cities that happen to have large IDP populations? Do people in population centres with IDPs tend to be more liberal in their political views, which itself would explain their positive attitudes towards IDPs? All possible, yes, but I doubt it. If I had the data set I could run this and answer that question. So, you know, UNHCR/KIIS, hintity hint hint.

What matters? Media coverage matters

The takeaway from this is that the more Ukrainians encounter, meet and get to know IDPs, the more likely they seem to be to have positive attitudes towards them. But you can’t get every Ukrainian in every village, town and city to get to know an IDP, particularly if there isn’t one for miles around.

That’s why media coverage of IDPs in Ukraine really matters. Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents in this poll said they based their opinions of IDPs on mass media; media coverage is even important for shaping the opinions of people who’ve met IDPs (53%) and those who have IDPs as friends or neighbours (38%).

What’s the best substitute for actually getting to know someone who’s had to flee their home? Watching, reading or hearing a good, accurate story about one.