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poverty in the North Caucasus
The North Caucasus comprises a rugged region along Russia’s southwestern frontier. The area is ethnically diverse and has a complicated history. Additionally, its poverty rate is high compared to most other regions of Russia.

Background of the Region

The makeup and history of the North Caucasus are essential to understanding the nature of poverty there. The region lies along Russia’s border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. It consists of the five republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The North Caucasus has a population of around 10 million, and of Russia’s eight federal districts, it is the only one in which ethnic Russians comprise a minority. Dozens of different ethnic groups call the North Caucasus home.

Conflict worsens poverty in the North Caucasus. After the fall of the Soviet Union, violence began in Chechnya and spread to the neighboring republics of the region, such as Dagestan, which has seen spillover violence. A low-level insurgency now spans much of the North Caucasus following earlier Chechen-Russian conflicts. Just as the conflict worsens poverty, poverty also contributes to conflict in the region. Areas such as Dagestan have become breeding grounds for Islamic extremists in recent years, due mainly to high unemployment and poverty rates throughout the region.

Poverty in the North Caucasus

Not only does the North Caucasus have high rates of poverty compared to other regions of Russia but it has also suffered from uneven development in recent years. Chechnya, which suffers from high poverty and unemployment rates, has seen little effective reconstruction in the wake of conflict. Underdevelopment also complicates accurately measuring the scope of poverty in the region.

The North Caucasus felt the economic impact of the pandemic heavily as many lost their jobs overnight. Additionally, the Russian government has largely left the regional governments of the North Caucasus on their own during the pandemic, sending little aid. The human rights violations and corruption that hamstring efforts to alleviate poverty have further complicated the situation. However, in recent years, the number of casualties from armed conflict in the region has diminished.

NGOs’ Work in the North Caucasus

With poverty so prevalent in the region, NGOs have been stepping up to provide needed services. For example, My Angel offers assistance to children in Karachayevo-Cherkessia who suffer from genetic diseases. Meanwhile, the All-Caucasus Youth Training Center works to encourage children’s participation in sports and provides support to women and children who have suffered violence. In addition, the Mother and Children NGO assists young women throughout the North Caucasus by informing them about their rights and healthcare options.

The North Caucasus is an incredibly diverse region within the Russian Federation. It has a complicated history, especially regarding the conflict that has impacted the region since the fall of the Soviet Union. In addition, poverty remains prevalent in the North Caucasus and contributes to conflict in the region. However, despite these challenges, NGOs are working to provide the people of the North Caucasus with as much assistance as possible.

Coulter Layden
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Marvel's Black WidowMany years since her first appearance in the cinematic universe, Natasha Romanoff or Marvel’s Black Widow, made her solo debut in the film “Black Widow.” The film debuted in theaters and on Disney+ on July 9, 2021, a groundbreaking film featuring a prominent ensemble of superwomen. However, the film is stirring the most conversation due to its powerful opening credit sequence.

The scene presents a series of video clips, images and allusions meant to represent the sexual and labor exploitation of women across the globe. More specifically, the opening credit sequence and the movie as a whole point to the fate of trafficked children.

This theme of human trafficking pivots off of Black Widow’s superhero backstory, in which the fictional underground Soviet agency known as the Red Room trafficked Natasha as a young girl. The organization abducted young girls across Eastern Europe and indoctrinated and exploited the girls to do the organization’s bidding.

The Importance of the Opening Credit Sequence

In the opening credit sequence, the audience sees the camera focus on the terrified faces of young girls lined up after traffickers kidnapped them. The opening credits also showcase ominous audio of screaming girls playing in the background of a young Natasha being separated from her younger sister Yelena and subsequent clips show older men manipulating and touching the girls.

Following the scenes, images of forced labor and indoctrination emerge, all of which are too common in the world, not just in Black Widow’s universe. The images and videos culminate in a line spoken near the end of the film by the leader of the Red Room. A man named Dreykov states that the Red Room “[uses] the only natural resource that the world has too much of, girls.”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one in three females who are trafficking victims globally are children. The production team behind “Black Widow” was keenly aware of this statistic and wanted to make their movie more impactful. “Black Widow” director, Cate Shortland, intended for themes of human trafficking to come through the film.

Shortland wanted to “intersect [Marvel] with reality,” as the trafficking that defines Natasha Romanoff is based on real events that happen to thousands of young girls every year. Shortland felt that to ignore the blatant trafficking schemes of the Red Room and the atrocities that young girls similar to Natasha faced, notably forced hysterectomies, would be out-of-touch and a disservice to the impact that the film could make on audiences globally.

Human Trafficking in Russia

Russia, the location of the Red Room, comprises human trafficking for the purpose of labor and sex. This fact is on display in the film as there are numerous references to Russian culture and constant use of the Russian language throughout. As a Tier 3 country, the United States Department of State has reported that Russia has made little to no effort to combat trafficking. For example, the Russian government only investigated six trafficking or slavery cases between 2019 and 2020.

The Importance and Impact of Recognition

The UNODC has stressed that any form of awareness that one can cultivate and spread about human trafficking and gender-based violence is essential to alleviating the burdens of victims and preventing trafficking in the future. Marvel’s “Black Widow” raises awareness through the three-minute-long opening credit sequence. Meanwhile, Shortland and the rest of the cast and crew advocate for the forgotten women and those who are victims of violence and exploitation, similar to Marvel’s Black Widow, Natasha herself. Shortland then ends the film with Natasha and Yelena releasing the remaining women and girls from the Red Room in an empowering scene where the women are finally free from their abuse.

– Rebecca Fontana
Photo: Flickr

Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in RussiaThe impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is quite significant. Like many other nations worldwide, the pandemic has proven to be a sizable obstacle in the fight against poverty. Measures meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 within Russia have resulted in the Russian economy shrinking overall. With this economic shrinkage, more people within Russia are at the brink of falling into poverty.

Unemployment and Poverty Rates

The economic decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a spike in unemployment within Russia. By October 2020, the unemployment rate had climbed to 6.3% — the highest unemployment rate Russia has seen in eight years. Many of these job losses mainly occurred in the “manufacturing, construction and retail and hospitality” sectors. Additionally, this increase in unemployment led to a spike in poverty. In the first quarter of 2020, the poverty rate stood at 12.65, rising to 13.2% in the second quarter of 2020.

Impact on Minor Cities

Some wealthy Russian cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, are better positioned to handle the economic impact of the pandemic. These larger Russian cities had more robust local economies before the pandemic. However, smaller cities have proven less capable of handling the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia. These smaller cities were hit hard by the collapse of Soviet industries with the fall of the Soviet Union, struggling to combat unemployment and poverty long before the onset of the pandemic. These impoverished cities also have some of the weakest healthcare systems in all of Russia. The pandemic has compounded this by overwhelming already under-supported healthcare systems.

Furthermore, sectors hit hard by the pandemic, such as construction and service, were previously a lifeline of employment for already impoverished cities. Many Russians within smaller cities face hard decisions of choosing between prioritizing health or income, with some opting to continue to work despite the dangers of COVID-19.

Impact on Migrant workers

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is strongly felt among Russia’s sizable population of migrant Central Asian workers. Many of these migrant workers have remained within Russia during the pandemic, without jobs or income.

These Central Asia migrants were targets of discrimination before the onset of the pandemic and were already in a more vulnerable position within Russia before 2020. The pandemic has only compounded this vulnerability as many face unemployment and border closures have made it impossible for most to return to Central Asia to wait out the pandemic.

Statistics from December 2019 indicate that more than 1.6 million migrant workers reside in Moscow. The majority of these migrant workers are from Central Asia. Many work in sectors such as service or construction —  sectors that were especially hard-hit by COVID-19 restrictions in and around Moscow. The fees that migrant workers pay the city of Moscow for their work permits form a significant part of the city’s revenue. In 2016, the mayor stated that these permit payments brought the city “more revenue than oil companies.”

Intervention by NGOs

Throughout the pandemic, Russian NGOs have been providing Russians with varied forms of assistance to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia. Marginalized populations are often unintentionally overlooked in aid endeavors.

Nochlezhka is an NGO in St. Petersburg, Russia, focusing efforts on the often marginalized and excluded homeless population. The organization garnered the support of citizens to help distribute informational COVID-19 pamphlets to the homeless and encouraged donations of sanitizer and face masks. Nochlezhka also started the You Are Not Alone initiative, encouraging citizens to “leave plastic bags with food and hygiene products in places where homeless people could find them.”

NGOs have not limited their assistance to Russia’s homeless population though. Organizations have created services that are available to a wider array of people. For instance, the Agora International Human Rights Group is providing legal assistance to Russians on various legal issues during the pandemic, “such as fighting fines issued for breaching lockdown.”

Trends for the Future

Despite these troubling examples of COVID-19’s impact on Russian poverty and predictions indicating that the poverty level in Russia will remain above 10% for some time, there is hope for the future. Government policies meant to combat the economic impacts of the pandemic have had some recent success. With the implementation of these support policies, estimates indicate that by the end of 2021, the Russian poverty level should fall below pre-pandemic levels.

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is substantial. The pandemic has witnessed a spike in unemployment and poverty overall. Additionally, the pandemic disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations within Russia, such as already impoverished citizens and migrant workers. Despite these hardships, Russian NGOs have stepped in to assist Russians. Predictions indicate that government support policies will largely reverse COVID-19’s impact on Russian poverty during 2021.

Coulter Layden
Photo: Flickr

Wildfires in SiberiaIn the summer of 2021, Russia experienced the driest weather in 150 years which caused wildfires in Siberia. Smoke covers the Yakutia region in particular and is destroying the Taiga forest around Teryut. Locals to this area, in part blaming an inadequate response to the fires by the Russian government, are beginning to help fight the fires.

What is at Stake

In 2020, the wildfires in Siberia destroyed 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra. This is equivalent to four times the area that burned in the United States in the same year.

For Russia, this means that the fires destroy drastic amounts of the boreal forest. It also releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This can contribute to higher temperatures overall. The forests in Siberia also have permafrost beneath them. This is part of the earth that stays frozen all year long. When fires blaze through the area, the permafrost melts, altering the dynamic of the forest itself. Instead of being the forest it has always been, the area has become much more swamp-like.

In the Yakutia region in particular, where the fires are decimating the Taiga forest, villagers’ livelihoods are at stake. People typically rely on the forest for food, including berries and meat. Additionally, they use wood to build structures and for warmth. The destruction of this resource can have a detrimental impact on the people who live there, especially the people who cannot afford to relocate.

Wildfires and Poverty

The destruction that wildfires create has a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. People living below the poverty line often do not have insurance protecting their houses from such a catastrophe. They also may not have the resources needed to either rebuild a destroyed house or to move to another area.

A study that the National Bureau of Economic Research completed released results in 2020 that analyzed 90 years of data recorded during natural disasters. It concluded that when natural disasters occur, the poverty rate in that country increases by about 1%. This is a result of the migration of higher-income people. However, those unable to move often end up in even worse conditions than before.

How Locals Have Stepped in for the Government

One reason why the local villagers are volunteering to join fire fighting crews is the lack of response from the Russian government. The locals have put the main blame for the wildfires on the government’s unpreparedness for such a disaster. The government made budget cuts to forestry and banned getting rid of dry grass in high-risk areas and the hot summers.

The Russian government turned to conspiracy theories this time. It hypothesized that people hoping to make a profit set the fires on purpose. There are ongoing criminal investigations against authorities for not doing enough to fight the fires.

Most Recently

Locals have been doing the best they can given their lack of training and preparedness. Thankfully, the Russian government has recognized the severity of the situation in Siberia and has sent military planes in to assist the fight. These planes have dropped an estimated 370 tons of water onto the fires covering 2 million acres of land.

With the locals and the government working together, hopes are high that the joint effort can combat the fires effectively. While the government may not have done as much as it could have in the beginning, it did take action to help the situation. Hopefully, it will be able to effectively help to fight and prevent wildfires in Siberia in the future. In order to help and protect those living under the poverty line, this will likely be necessary.

– Alessandra Heitmann
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 Vaccination in San MarinoSan Marino is a small Southern European state surrounded by Italy. Despite having a small population of just 33,000 people and a mountainside location, the country is surprisingly one of the wealthiest in the world based on GDP per capita. San Marino acquires most of its wealth from tourism and the sale of local goods. However, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly destroyed the country’s tourism industry. The campaign for COVID-19 vaccinations in San Marino will allow the economy to recover as industries begin to reopen, igniting economic activity.

The Impact of COVID-19

In terms of the poverty rate in San Marino, minimal data exists. But, like the rest of the world, San Marino’s economy has also experienced adverse impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, tourism rates decreased due to stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions. Before the pandemic, the small country averaged around two million tourists in 2019, a clear indication of the significant economic role of the tourism sector. With regard to COVID-19 rates, San Marino has confirmed 5,092 cases and 90 deaths. The campaign for COVID-19 vaccinations in San Marino has been successful due to small population numbers and a steady supply of vaccines.

COVID-19 Vaccinations in San Marino

All of San Marino’s people have either been partially or completely vaccinated against COVID-19. The country administered mostly Sputnik V vaccines after signing a deal with Russia. Starting May 17, 2021, San Marino is offering a COVID-19 vaccine holiday package to boost tourism with an incentive. The holiday package allows non-residents access to vaccines in San Marino by booking accommodation for a certain duration at one of 19 hotels.

“The initiative is open only to those coming from countries that Italy has opened up to for tourism.” Two separately administered Sputnik V doses are available at a cost of €50. To receive the second dose of the vaccine, tourists must return to the country and stay in a hotel for at least three days. This way, San Marino makes up for its loss of tourism revenue while helping to eradicate the virus with vaccines.

The Road to Recovery

More than 66% of the population has been fully vaccinated through the campaign for COVID-19 vaccinations in San Marino. With no patients hospitalized for COVID-19, the country is effectively controlling its COVID-19 infections. With an adequate vaccine supply to cover its population, San Marino has found an innovative way to put the vaccine surplus to good use while boosting the tourism industry. The COVID-19 vaccination holiday package in San Marino is a unique solution to ignite economic recovery in the country. The offer has caught the attention of tourists who trust in the efficacy of the Sputnik V vaccine. Through innovative solutions, San Marino is finding creative  ways to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic

– Matt Orth
Photo: Flickr

Fetal Mortality Rate in Russia
The Russian Federation is the largest nation by land area in the world, and its approximately 146 million people, according to Worldometer, are remarkably diverse and varied across this vast territorial expanse. While this broad and beautiful nation has problems both similar and different to all nations of the world, one real issue that is relatable across all borders, regardless of culture, is the danger of losing one’s child at the time one gives birth. The fetal mortality rate in Russia is no exception.

This is a problem that purveys all species of animals, yet for humans, the struggle to survive childbirth has become easier in many places across the world with the succeeding decades. For Russia, remedying its fetal mortality rate will go hand in hand with fixing their nations own blighted poverty, as the two play off of one another in a Sisyphean loop.

The Poverty and Fetal Mortality Rate in Russia

The numbers across the board in 2021 are markedly better than those at the start of the century. However, in comparison to 50 years ago, the fetal mortality rate in Russia has actually been improving at a steady rate, even as national poverty, currently at just 13% nationally, continues on its own uneven road.

The U.N. Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation estimates that nationally in 1970, approximately every 31 out of 1,000 births resulted in the death of the child in the Soviet Union. That number is today on par with the fetal mortality rate of far poorer nations, yet during this time, the Soviet Union was, under Leonid Brezhnev, still a powerful, if declining, force across the globe. The succeeding decades have since produced a consistent decline in these numbers, yet they have remained alarming to varying degrees, and for varying constituents, during this time.

By 2002, a bit more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, now led by ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, had shaved the number of estimated infant deaths per 1,000 children nationally from approximately 31 to 14.8 across 30 years. However, regions and cities like Tula, amongst the poorest regions in Russia, still recorded nearly 17 per 1,000. But, as a scathing report on the conditions on the ground told at the time, even these numbers, high as they are, might yet be untrustworthy and lower than in reality.

In this report, the infant mortality rate in St. Petersburg in 2001 was just 9.3 per 1,000 births. Meanwhile, in the region of Chuktskity Okrug, that number was actually more than four times higher than the national average at just over 42 per 1,000 live births. Therefore, one can surely conclude that the wealth and internal infrastructure of the region certainly has a part to play in the fetal mortality rate both regionally and nationally.

The Numbers Today

Today, the national number has continued to shrink in comparison to the old data, yet this onus remains a terrible burden on the massively expansive nation; in 2019, estimates determined that Russia had only 4.93 infant deaths on a national scale, which is a far cry from approximately 31 out of 1,000 just slightly more than 50 years ago. While Russia’s rates have officially dropped, again buoyed by the more readily available healthcare of the larger cities like Moscow, the country’s official standing regarding the fetal mortality rate is nuanced.

However, while some facts change across the decades, other things remain the same. Available reports from all of these periods show that the nation was not infrastructurally integrated enough to sustain mothers or their children with the necessary resources, education or medical attention. Today, like in 2010, 2000 and 1970, the poorest regions in the federation, as well as within cities themselves, continue to suffer this trauma and unfair indignity at higher rates than their city-dwelling fellow citizens.

Russia: Between a Proverbial Rock and Hard Place

With sanctions against Russia omnipresent and the nation’s government itself outwardly hostile towards global nonprofits since 2012, external as well as internal human rights and advocacy groups have struggled to positively affect change. Population and Development was a Russian NGO that focused primarily on the promotion and protection of the reproductive health of Russian citizens before it shut down alongside so many others. The United States Agency for International Development, which has previously invested time and energy towards the betterment of Russian society through education and health initiatives, has had limited power and prestige in Russia in the years since 2012, as the country kicked it out in September of that year. Vladimir Putin’s government’s newest crackdown in April 2021 has left still fewer external or internal options for advocates to effectively affect positive change across the society, apart from the World Bank.

While the Russian government has largely discontinued or silenced internal and external assistance, cooperation with the World Bank has continued and might be the surest recourse for the fetal mortality rate in Russia. While Vladimir Putin has said that “Russia’s fate and its historic prospects depend on how many of us there are…,” his government alone has not been up to fixing all that ails the nation’s fetal mortality rate, and so continues to place its population in the most dangerous of positions. On the other hand, since 1992, the World Bank has been helping the Russian Federation advance the internal dynamics of their nation, from the hard and soft infrastructure necessary to producing stable economic circumstances to the education and resources necessary to create healthy environments for mothers to have, and then subsequently care for, their children.

Helping Russia

In such an unforgiving natural environment, the people require all of the help they can to sustain themselves and their families from generation to generation. Ultimately, organizations like the United Nations, USAID, Population and Development and other organizations can still help Russia with its poverty and fetal mortality rate, should they only receive the chance to do so once again.

– Trent Nelson
Photo: Flickr

Corruption in Russia and Its Effects on Poverty
In 2018, the Russian government set the goal of halving poverty levels in the country by 2024. However, recent revelations of corruption among Russian officials threaten progress towards such a goal. One is the case of President Vladimir Putin’s usage of ₽100 billion, about $1 billion, of stolen taxpayer money to build his extravagant palace. Here is an explanation of corruption in Russia and its effects on poverty.

“Comrade Capitalism”

Corruption in Russia is primarily based on the merging of public services and private interests. In 2005, President Putin created a $1 billion program to improve the country’s healthcare system, as average life expectancy declined significantly after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to a 2014 Reuters investigation titled “Comrade Capitalism,” this program helped to fund the construction of President Putin’s palace on the Black Sea and enrich two of his closest associates, Dmitry Gorelov and Nikolai Shamalov.

Shamalov was involved in the construction and preparation of new hospitals. Gorelov and Shamalov used multiple intermediaries to increase their profits while providing medical equipment to the Russian government. One of those intermediaries was a company based in Washington, D.C., that received approximately $50 million for providing construction materials for President Putin’s palace.

Poverty in Russia During COVID-19

Although the Reuters investigation is 7 years old, its revelations of Russian corruption are particularly timely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working-class cities in Russia have experienced the most impact. A report from The Moscow Times covers Ivanovo, Russia, a city located four hours away from Moscow that was once the center of Russia’s textile industry but has struggled during the pandemic. High unemployment rates and low monthly salaries contribute to a broader trend of doctors leaving the city seeking employment elsewhere. Since many of the available jobs in the city are in construction, security and shop work, most residents are unable to shelter in place to control the spread of COVID-19. As a result, all hospitals in the city are almost at full capacity. Moreover, the city’s healthcare chief is looking to purchase more refrigerators because the morgues are full.

Expanded Social Welfare in Russia

In response to the increased poverty rates that the pandemic caused, the Russian government has expanded social welfare programs. The most successful and widely used type of social assistance is cash transfers. The integration of cash transfers with employment support and social inclusion services was highly successful in the Republic of Tatarstan. The Republic of Tatarstan created a program called the Tatarstan Social Assistance System Development Project in collaboration with the World Bank. Since the establishment of this program, an increase in opportunities and financial support has occurred for people in Tatarstan. Thankfully, experts expect this trend to continue.

“Palace for Putin” Hits a Nerve

Alexei Navalny, President Putin’s most public political rival, wrote a documentary in January 2021 called “Palace for Putin.” It covered President Putin’s rise to power, the extent of his estate on the Black Sea and the people in his immediate circle that enrich themselves at the expense of the Russian people. Navalny’s team enlisted the help of an outraged palace contractor to provide an insider view of the secretive estate. Leaked floor plans of the palace reveal countless swimming pools, halls and extra bedrooms for entertaining guests. The property also has a hockey rink and amphitheater, in addition to other lavish accommodations.

For many Russians experiencing a decreased standard of living and increased inequality, this documentary was the last straw. On January 23, 2021, protests broke out as a result of Navalny’s recent arrest and corruption in Russia. While other protests of Russia’s recent history took place exclusively in big cities, these are quite different. Not only are the protests spread across the country, but younger generations are leading them. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, some in temperatures far below freezing, to express their frustrations.

Although the protests were mostly peaceful, police forcefully dispersed protests, citing COVID-19 concerns, and detained thousands of protesters, violating the freedom of assembly outlined in the Russian constitution. Navalny’s February 2, 2021 trial and sentencing for violating parole further attracted protesters, hundreds of whom authorities arrested outside of the Moscow court where the hearing took place.

Response from the United States

On September 23, 2020, Representative James P. McGovern [D-MA-2] introduced a resolution condemning Russian authorities for the suspicious poisoning of Alexei Navalny and calling for an investigation of the poisoning as use of chemical weapons, which is a violation of international law. The resolution passed in the House of Representatives on November 18, 2020.

One week after taking office, President Biden had his first phone call with President Vladimir Putin, in which they agreed to extend New START, the U.S.-Russia arms control deal. President Biden also confronted him about the recent SolarWinds hack and the arrest of Alexei Navalny. The U.S. president’s tone with President Putin was less sympathetic than that of his predecessor. Additionally, the Biden administration has taken interest in the recent protests in Russia. This is because they reveal weaknesses in Russian domestic politics that tarnish Putin’s image as a leader with complete control. The renewed desire for honesty and accountability among the Russian people presents an opportunity for the United States to engage with Russian society.

Moving Forward

Corruption in Russia is extremely frustrating to the average citizen. With corruption among top national officials, Navalny’s arrest and pandemic-induced decreased living standards, it is clear to see why. In order for average Russian lives to improve, the social safety net must undergo expansion. If Russia continues following the example of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Biden administration continues to invest in the well-being of Russian citizens, corruption in Russia and its effects on poverty should slowly but surely improve.

– Sydney Thiroux
Photo: Unsplash

Examining The Ukrainian Path ForwardIn 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians saw this move as a political realignment with Russia after years of economic and political grudges had nearly pushed the country in the opposite direction towards the E.U. and the West. There did not seem to be a Ukrainian path forward; for many, this was a step backward. The protests sent a clear message of the Ukrainian people’s deep-seated frustration with their government. This frustration compounded with Ukraine’s choice to remain more closely tied to Russia than with its western neighbors. By February 2014, then-President Yanukovych had fled to Russia and the opposition government stepped in. Then, in March 2014, the fate of Ukrainians turned irrevocably grim as Russia began a thinly-veiled invasion.

Invasion, Annexation and Occupation

Many still regard Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a breach of international law according to its membership of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It met with harsh sanctions from the U.S., E.U. and several other nations, many of which targeted Russia’s lucrative oil and gas exports. Despite international condemnation, Russia was at it again the next month.

Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine. They soon received military assistance in their fight against the Ukrainian military. Support came in the form of what has become widely known as “little green men.” Russian troops had already occupied Crimea, but they were also assisting the separatist movements in the newly-declared autonomous zones in the Donbass region. They supplied light and heavy arms, troops and tactical assistance. All this has led to a conflict that remains unresolved to this day. The conflict remains frozen in constantly-violated ceasefires without a clear end in sight. Russia still receives much of the blame from the international community.

The Kremlin Strategy

The war claimed 14,000 lives since 2014, displaced millions of Ukrainians and sent Ukraine’s economy in turmoil, begging the question of why Russia has been willing to commit to this volatile conflict. The answer lies in defense. Ukraine is one of the key former Soviet states that form a buffer zone around Russia’s eastern border. The border has seen numerous invasions throughout history and, according to “The Red Line” podcast, “after World War II, Russia decided that it never again wanted to be only 1,200 kilometers from [its] enemy’s position.”

The Ukrainian path forward is currently at a crossroads. If the country aligns itself with the West, Russia would face a major geopolitical loss. Russia maintains the conflict largely because it provides for the existence of three territorial disputes within Ukraine. This bars it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a country cannot join the Western alliance if it has any outstanding territorial disputes or conflicts. A similar strategy has worked for Russia in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. This does not, however, mean that there is no hope for an end to the violence.

Peace by Any Means

In the seven years following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, a long brigade of ceasefires, peace agreements and mounting international pressure to end the violence have occurred. Perhaps the most notable successes were the Minsk Protocol of 2014 and the subsequent Minsk II Agreement in 2015. The Minsk II Agreement included steps towards a ceasefire, monitoring from the OSCE and the assertion that economic recovery was necessary in the regions the conflict affected the most. The latter attempted to build upon limited successes from the past year, but the ceasefires have followed a consistent pattern of violations along the so-called “security zone.” Aside from two prisoner swaps, increased humanitarian assistance and successive ceasefires in the past two years, a clear Ukrainian path forward to lasting peace still appears blocked.

A Shift in Foreign Engagement

The leaders of Germany and France have spearheaded the majority of peace talks and negotiations. However, the Biden Administration brings hope to the international community that the U.S. will become more involved in negotiations. Increased involvement would help the Ukrainian path forward, rather than Ukraine continuing to rely on defensive aid to its government. Antony Blinken’s nomination to Secretary of State has garnered even more speculation about the possible benefits for the Ukrainian people. The Atlantic Council maintained that “Blinken played an influential role in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” It is true that the ratcheting up of economic sanctions could force Russia back to the negotiating table. Hopefully this time with genuine aspirations of cooling the conflict down.

Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Photo: Flickr

Russia’s AIDS EpidemicAmid a global pandemic, Russia is fighting a medical war on two fronts; as Russia deals with the spread of COVID-19, Russia’s AIDS epidemic is worsening. As the HIV  infection rate continues to decline in the rest of Europe, the transmission rate of HIV in Russia has been increasing by 10 to 15% yearly. This increase in transmission is comparable to the yearly increase in transmission of HIV in the United States in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

The AIDS Epidemic in Russia

Among other factors, the erosion of effective sexual health education and a rise in the use of opioids has led to a stark increase in the transmission of HIV/AIDS in Russia. The epidemic of AIDS in Russia has received little attention from the Russian Government and the international community, partly because of the nation’s social orthodoxy and the stigma surrounding drug use and HIV/AIDS.

The Silent Spread of HIV

A significant number of Russians infected with HIV are those who inject drugs. Roughly 2.3% (1.8 million) of Russian adults inject drugs, making Russia the nation in Eastern Europe with the highest population of those who inject drugs. Due to the stigma associated with drug use as well as the threat of harsh criminal punishment, few drug users who have been affected by HIV seek treatment. A study from the Society for the Study of Addiction found that in St. Petersburg only one in 10 Russians who inject drugs and are living with HIV currently access treatment.

A large part of the stigma surrounding AIDS in Russia comes from the return of traditionalism to the Russian government following the election of Vladamir Putin in 2012 and the strong connection between the traditionalist Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Government. The Orthodox Church, in particular, has blocked efforts to instate sex education programs in schools and campaigns to give easier access to safe sex tools like condoms. While methadone is used worldwide to treat opioid addiction to lower the use of drug injection and therefore HIV transmission, the Russian Government has banned methadone. Any person caught supplying methadone faces up to 20 years in prison.

HIV During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Studies conducted during 2020 have shown that Russians living with HIV and AIDS have faced difficulties in accessing treatment. According to UNAIDS, 4% of Russians living with HIV reported missing medical treatment due to the pandemic and roughly 30% of respondents reported that their treatment was somehow impacted by the pandemic.

The same study found that HIV-positive Russians had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis at a rate four times higher than HIV-negative Russians. However, HIV-positive Russians were less likely to seek medical attention for COVID-19 despite the high health risks, such as a weaker immune system that can accompany HIV. More Russians are contracting HIV yearly but the stigma of living with HIV is preventing HIV-positive Russians from seeking medical treatment.

Destigmatizing HIV/AIDs in Russia

With little national attention paid to the epidemic of AIDS in Russia, the movement for change has come from individuals looking to give visibility to and destigmatize HIV/AIDS. In 2015, after television news anchor, Pavel Lobkov, announced on-air that he had been living with AIDS since 2003, Russian doctors including Lobkov’s own doctor, saw a surge in people seeking HIV tests and treatment. In a nation where AIDS is highly stigmatized, a national celebrity showing that one can live a normal life with AIDS brought comfort to many Russians living with HIV/AIDS.

More Russians living with HIV/AIDS have made efforts to shed light on Russia’s HIV epidemic and destigmatize HIV to the public as well as in the medical community. Patients in Control, a nongovernmental organization run by two HIV-positive Russians, Tatiana Vinogradova and Andrey Skvortsov, set up posters around St. Petersburg that read “People with HIV are just like you and me,” and encourage HIV-positive Russians to seek antiretroviral treatment. HIV-positive Russians like Skvortsov and Vinogradova are trying to bring national attention to a health crisis that is seldom discussed, hoping to create a national conversation and put pressure on Russian officials to take action on the worsening epidemic.

A Call for Urgent Action

HIV-positive Russians and AIDS activists like Skvortsov have argued that until the Russian Government puts forth an “urgent, full forced response” to Russia’s AIDS epidemic, the rate of transmission will continue to climb. Many Russians on the ground are making public campaigns to destigmatize and normalize living with HIV, hoping to persuade the government to take action.

In 2018 alone, AIDS took the lives of 37,000 people across Russia. As of May 2020, more than 340,000 Russians have died of AIDS. While the social atmosphere of Russia, influenced by Putin’s government and the Orthodox Church, has created a shroud of secrecy and shame surrounding the AIDS epidemic, many HIV-positive Russians hope that the intensity of the epidemic will force the Russian Government to make a concerted effort to address Russia’s AIDS epidemic.

Kieran Graulich
Photo: Flickr

Elderly Poverty in Russia
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the Soviet Union dissolved and the subsequent Russian Federation emerged. With nearly 20 million people living in poverty, the transition to a capitalist nation has certainly not been an easy one for Russia’s citizens. Before assessing the subject of elderly poverty in Russia, it may be helpful to explore some of the causes and consequences of pervasive poverty throughout the population.

Wealth Inequality is Rampant

While nearly 14% of its population lives below the poverty line, and 20-30% considers itself poor, Russia’s fiscal policy ultimately favors the rich. One may observe this in the fact that 50% of Russia’s pre-tax national income goes to the top 10%. Relative to the size of its economy, Russia has the highest number of billionaires compared to any other large country — its wealth stratification being the worst out of all the countries included in the World Inequality Database.

Russia is Relatively Unproductive

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Russia ranks 39th out of the 42 reported countries. One can attribute this to several consequences resulting from its state capitalism, which include weak institutions and corruption. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has fallen especially within the past few years after the implementation of sanctions following the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Russia’s labor force is set to shrink between now and 2050 as a result of constraint in growth from its aging population — that being, more young people are leaving Russia while the elderly will require more comprehensive improvements in health care and long-term care.

Post-Soviet Hardship

After the economic collapses of 1991 and 1998, many Russians lost their life’s savings. The transition to a capitalist economic system has had a substantial negative effect on the older generation (age 50 and up), which represents nearly 35% of the population.

While much of the data reported on elderly poverty in Russia contradicts, reports have determined that upwards of 70% of aging couples are poor. Because of this, a justified concern exists around Russia’s consistently aging population, as it faces an even higher risk of poverty – invoking a necessity to investigate and address the country’s aging issue and economic instability.

Limited Public Assistance

According to the Global AgeWatch Index, Russia ranks 65th out of 96 countries when considering the population’s well-being, life expectancy and mental health. Furthermore, the pensions have neither kept up with inflation nor the country’s average earnings, as the average pensioner in Russia receives the equivalent of €180 per month – barely enough to live on.

Unfortunately, Russia has limited resources for the elderly who are either disabled or suffering from dementia and other ailments. Social services and state aid are often expensive and inaccessible to the older generation – wrapped up in a multitude of bureaucratic requirements. Those who do not have a family to receive care from often end up homeless or in nursing homes with “warehouse” conditions.

Bettering Conditions

Fortunately, organizations exist that are continuously working to improve the consequential conditions of elderly poverty in Russia. One such organization is Enjoyable Aging. The depressing conditions of poverty and loneliness in nursing homes in Russia struck Lisa Oleskina, who started the organization in 2006.

Today, Enjoyable Aging employs nurses who adopt a standard of individual care for elderly patients living in nursing homes. Loneliness is a serious concern for Russia’s elderly, and poverty can certainly exacerbate this issue. Enjoyable Aging combats loneliness through organizing events and regular correspondence with facility residents in more than 120 nursing homes in Russia.

Further Signs of Improvement

As with the rest of the world, Russia has faced an economic downturn amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with the nation’s unemployment rate increasing to its highest in eight years (6.3%). A recent spike in cases could potentially push the country into further economic turbulence that will have a substantial impact on the older generation. However, prior to the pandemic, Russia was on track to see long-term economic growth.

Although progress had been slow, the World Bank reported as recently as September 2020 on Russia’s promising improvements in its human capital development – most notably, the country’s reductions in adult and child mortality rates. Nevertheless, as the population’s average age continues to rise, a necessity to significantly improve funding for the country’s public health care remains. Prioritizing long-term physical and mental needs is essential to lift up the most vulnerable within a developing economy.

– Alessandra Parker
Photo: Flickr