ESVERO: A “Foreign Agent”?

30 June 2016

Last week, the Russian Justice Ministry acknowledged non-governmental organization ESVERO as a “foreign agent”. Yesterday, Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice suffered the same fate.  In this blog, Dasha Matyushina speaks about the situation with ESVERO and what this means for harm reduction. Follow us for more comments about the situation.

How are we supposed to react to ESVERO being called a “foreign agent”? Should we sympathize? Should we get angry? I think it’s best to just congratulate the organization. This is like becoming a member of an elite club, after all. You’re in great company of the best organizations: those that have declined a deal with the authorities and those that work for the benefit of the people.

I was among those who organized ESVERO in 2003. It was called the All-Russian Harm Reduction Network then. At that time the authorities were not supportive of harm reduction but it didn’t occur to us that we had to conceal what we were doing. Yes, we gave out syringes and condoms to people using drugs. We helped them get tested for HIV and receive treatment, get into a drug treatment clinic or rehab if they wanted to. These are basics of HIV prevention; it’s impossible to stop HIV without harm reduction programs.

These are also the basics of epidemiology; there is a need to target those populations where infections spread the fastest. Saying that drugs are bad is useless. Most clients of ESVERO programs can talk about drug related harm as well as any drug treatment specialist. Neither prison nor forced treatment are working; most drug dependent people return to using drugs after release. What’s needed is an individualized approach. It’s necessary to build trust so the person knows that rather than being edified they’ll get something they need for survival, like a syringe, an HIV and hepatitis test, naloxone in case of an overdose, lawyer’s assistance and a referral to free drug treatment.

The Russian authorities do not fund harm reduction work. I may be pessimistic, but something tells me that the task of eradicating harm reduction is much more important to the authorities than some HIV epidemic or the lives of one or two million drug users - one or two million Russian citizens actually. Because harm reduction is about the importance of everyone, about human dignity and about grass-roots initiatives. And these days the authorities have totally different values: control, power and eliminating dissidence.

ESVERO had a choice: to try and receive funding for harm reduction from international organizations or to close its projects and do something else, earning money. Actually ESVERO spent a great deal of time trying to find a common ground with the authorities and to show its loyalty. ESVERO decided long ago to avoid any activities that might be perceived as political in a broad sense. ESVERO hasn’t confronted the authorities, it hasn’t spoken up against them or accused them of human rights violations (and I pity the fact that they haven’t done that). It has treaded lightly, trying to convince the authorities that harm reduction is good – and not just for drug dependent people but also for their families, neighbours and Russians overall… But one can’t reach an agreement with the authorities these days.

It isn’t surprising that ESVERO has been acknowledged as a “foreign agent”. It couldn’t happen any other way because for this country millions of families affected by drug-related issues are not “its own”. They don’t belong; they are strange; perhaps they are foreign after all.