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Russia takes one step forward, two steps back

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which direction the Russian government is going in. Fiona Clark looks at some recent policy decisions that bode well, but are duly dashed by the next government move.

One step forward and two steps back is often the way with policies in any country, but with Russia the path is far more random. Let's take HIV/AIDS as an example. The number of diagnosed cases in Russia is now more than 1 million, and after decades of doing very little to avert the crisis the government is on the verge of delivering a new policy that will go a considerable way toward addressing the problem.

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HIV finds its way into Russian middle class

While it has its faults, the draft policy has been universally hailed by NGO's and health organisations as a positive step forward by a government that has until now shown little more than indifference toward those with HIV - especially among vulnerable groups such as intravenous drug users and sex workers. Its shortcomings include its continued failure to sanction standard practices in the West, such as needle exchanges and opioid substitution therapy like methadone programs, but it's the first time in years that the health ministry has sets its mind to addressing the epidemic in a meaningful way and getting it under control.

And when you see a seismic shift in a positive direction like this it makes you think that things in Russia might be turning around and that a more humane face may begin to emerge. After all there will even be a sex-education course that university students can take part in that aims to teach about how the virus is spread - and that's a huge step forward when the Orthodox Church is preaching abstinence as the best form of prevention.

Short-lived optimism

Russian woman (c) picture-alliance/dpa/A. Novoderezhkin

Upholding human rights the Russian way

Unfortunately though that feeling of hope and optimism was shortlived. The appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova as Russia's ombudsman for human rights snuffed out that spark of light at the end of the very long tunnel very quickly.

Moskalkova was a major general in Russia's interior ministry and was awarded an engraved pistol for her efforts there. She then joined the pro-government party, Just Russia, and won a seat in the parliament where she supported laws such as the ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans. She also supported the imprisonment of the two girls from Pussy Riot after they sang an anti-Putin song inside a Moscow cathedral.

Shortly after that she proposed a bill that was intended to punish 'violations of morality' but it was rejected by lawmakers. She also proposed renaming the Federal Security Bureau after the Cheka - the first incarnation of the Soviet secret police that was synonymous with widespread killings including the 1921 'Red Terror' campaign under Lenin. Estimates for the number of people killed during that period range from 50,000 to over one and a half million.

Countering western influences

Defending her appointment, Moskalkova said one of the important tasks she would undertake as commissioner for human rights would be to counter the "Western and American structures" that use human rights as a "weapon of blackmail, speculation, threats, and attempts to destabilize and put pressure on Russia."

The appointment is so left-of-field that even the far-right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky - not usually known for his empathy - questioned the choice.

AP reports him as saying Moskalkova "is a great person but her work in the Soviet police and in the police under [President Boris] Yeltsin cannot give us any reason to think that she is able and wants to defend human rights."

She says she is going to focus on protecting Russians' socio-economic rights such as salary payments, pensions and medical care - an agenda that is in line with the issues most Russians are concerned about. But it doesn't bode well for NGOs, human rights groups and civil rights activists.

Her previous support for labelling NGO's (who mostly work with Russia's disenfranchised including the disabled, chronically or mentally ill, orphans, sex workers, drug addicts and other vulnerable groups) that receive foreign funding as foreign agents lends weight to the fear in the human rights community that this is indeed a very big step in the wrong direction.

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