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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

LeAP initiativeAccess to education is a global issue that is deeply connected to issues of global poverty. Education often provides impoverished people with a way to escape poverty through improved job opportunities and better knowledge of healthcare. In this way, reducing poverty in developing countries often requires improving access to education. The World Bank is currently implementing a program called the Learning Assessment Platform, or LeAP, which it hopes will allow world leaders to better track how effective and efficient their nations’ educational systems are. Through the LeAP initiative, the World Bank hopes to improve global education.

Learning in Crisis

Poor and absent education is a serious global issue, with UNESCO finding that roughly 258 million children were not enrolled in school in 2018. That number has likely increased since then as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even for children in impoverished countries who do get an education, many times the education they receive is poor in quality and ineffective. Among developing nations, only 44% of children enrolled in school had obtained proficiency in mathematics and reading in 2017. In sub-Saharan Africa, that number fell to only 10%.

According to the World Bank, a significant factor contributing to these low education rates is the fact that many developing countries lack systems to measure learning outcomes among populations. Without such systems, leaders in these countries are unable to accurately identify the reasons why their education systems are failing, which prevents them from implementing effective policies that would improve the education systems.

The LeAP Initiative

Despite these challenges, the World Bank is hoping to use its resources to improve education by leaps and bounds. In order to meet this goal, the World Bank is working to improve learning assessment systems in developing countries by developing a Learning Assessment Platform. The LeAP initiative would provide countries with the tools and resources needed to develop more effective systems for assessing the state of education among populations.

For the past decade, the World Bank has been working to build a solid base of learning assessment resources for the LeAP program to build off of. With the help of Russia’s similar learning assessment program, called the Russia Education Aid for Development (READ) Trust Fund program, the World Bank has developed a wide range of tools and resources specifically designed to help countries accurately gauge the effectiveness of education systems. These include free online courses for educating policymakers and specialists on effective learning assessment techniques, tools for benchmarking education success and access to more than 60 reports detailing the student assessment systems of dozens of countries.

Investing in Learning

In its efforts to improve global education, the World Bank has done more than just provide developing countries with learning assessment resources. Working with the READ Trust Fund program, the World Bank has helped secure more than $20 million in learning assessment system improvement grants for 12 different countries, including Ethiopia, Cambodia, India and Vietnam.

Through the LeAP initiative and several other global education programs, the World Bank hopes to reduce worldwide “learning poverty” by at least 50% by 2030.

The World Bank’s goal of cutting learning poverty is ambitious but its work on improving learning assessment systems around the world is an important step toward making it a reality. When countries are able to accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of education systems, they are able to craft policies that more effectively improve these systems while also allowing other countries to learn from them and develop their own learning assessment systems. In this way, The World Bank’s LeAP initiative is pivotal in its effort to improve global education.

– Marshall Kirk
Photo: Flickr

10 Facts About Sanitation in RussiaDespite Russia’s vast landscape and numerous bodies of water, access to clean, drinkable water is one of the nation’s most dire concerns. Although the government has recently taken steps to improve accessibility and water quality, years of inadequate infrastructure and weak pollution regulations have caused monumental damage. Here are 10 facts about sanitation in Russia.

10 Facts About Sanitation in Russia

  1. As of 2018, more than 11 million Russians do not have access to clean drinking water, according to the Russian regulatory bodies. Reports also show that roughly a third of Russia’s population of 144 million drink water with high iron content. While ingesting iron isn’t harmful to one’s health, iron in the water attracts multiple breeds of bacteria, making it dangerous to drink. Not to mention, high iron content will turn the water yellow and produce a foul smell.
  2. Although Moscow is the largest city in Russia, more than 56% of its water sources do not pass official water safety standards. A study in 2013 found high levels of sulfur, oil, aluminum and other hard metals in Moscow’s main river, the Moskva.
  3. Much of the pollutants in Russia’s water sources were dumped during Joseph Stalin’s rule, between 1941 and 1953. Stalin wanted the USSR to “catch up” with the western countries, and, as a result, factories forewent the usual environmental regulations in order to produce goods as quickly as possible.
  4. As recent as 2016, locals near Mayak, one of Russia’s nuclear complexes responsible for some of the largest radioactive accidents, speculated that the plant was still dumping waste into the Techa River. Mayak’s last confirmed case of illegal dumping was in 2004, and doctors have recorded consistently high rates of birth defects and cancer in the residents of the area.
  5. With around two million lakes and a quarter of the world’s freshwater reserves, Russia is not lacking any water. However, faulty pipes, pollution and inefficient filters have left much of the population without clean potable water. Scientists estimate that up to 60% of Russia’s water reserves do not pass sanitary standards, due to pollution and chemical dumping.
  6. Roughly 30% of the water pipelines that run through Russian towns and cities are in need of repair. The corrosion of these pipes not only stops them from working but can deposit even more harmful heavy metals into the already contaminated water supply.
  7. In 2010, the Russian Academy of Sciences created a government-backed plan called the Clean Water of Russia Program. This is Russia’s first and only government-issued program designed to overcome the water crisis. More than 2,000 separate proposals were collected and refined into the program, which was implemented in regions across the country. The program outlines goals to invest in improving water supply and waste disposal, protection for water sources against pollution and installing steel water pipes to last over 100 years.
  8. Although the Clean Water of Russia Program is a step in the right direction, many scientists have called out the lack of science-based data in the initiative. Reconstructing entirely new water systems may be economically favorable in some areas of the country while repairing pre-existing water systems would be more efficient in other areas. Some scholars worry that an inadequate number of scientists were involved in outlining the Clean Water of Russia Program, and the country will lose an unnecessary amount of money.
  9. Similar to the nationwide Clean Water of Russia Program, a smaller, government-backed plan entitled The Clean Water of Moscow was created in 2010 with plans to provide clean water to all of Moscow’s citizens. This plan was structured with the help of scientists. Since its inception, four water treatment plants utilize ozone-sorption technology to purify Moscow’s drinking water.
  10. Five years after the creation of the Clean Water of Russia Program, a study carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that 97% of Russian citizens’ water sources had improved in quality, and 72% of the population had improved and available sanitation facilities. However, improved quality does not equate to meeting water safety standards, and millions of people still do not have access to pure drinking water.

After examining these 10 facts about sanitation in Russia, there are still many obstacles in its path to clean water for all, including massive detrimental polluting during the 20th century and from nuclear power plants. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin informed citizens in a broadcasted Q&A that access to water was still a prominent issue for the country, despite the launching of the Clean Water of Russia Program. However, through continued work, the Clean Water of Russia Program can make a positive difference in further improving clean water access.

– Anya Chung
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

8 Facts About Tuberculosis in Russia With COVID-19 emerging as a global pandemic, attention has centered on alleviating its effects. However, this has posed challenges to combating other respiratory illnesses, like tuberculosis, due to the lack of control efforts. Russia has been particularly hit by this, where it has a higher sensitivity to respiratory issues. To better understand this and the solutions that might be used to fight both COVID-19 and tuberculosis, here are eight facts about tuberculosis in Russia.

8 Facts About Tuberculosis in Russia

  1. Tuberculosis (TB) is endemic, or regularly found, in Russia. In fact, Russia has the world’s 11th highest burden of TB. Compounding its status as a major public health problem is a rising incidence of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). This means that TB does not respond to many of the antibiotics that are most commonly used to treat the disease. Russia has the third highest number of MDR-TB in the world.
  2. The severity of Russia’s TB epidemic stems from historical, social and economic factors. When the Soviet Union collapsed, health infrastructure and the economy declined dramatically. Poverty and crime rates increased, leading to higher incarceration rates. As TB is airborne, it spreads best in cramped and crowded conditions, just like those in prisons. These factors contributed to the rapid spread of both TB and MDR-TB. The Fall of the Iron Curtain also led to unstable living conditions, increased mass migration and exacerbated the TB epidemic with a 7.5 percent annual increase in new cases from 1991 to 1999.
  3. There is a close synergy between the TB and HIV/AIDS epidemics in Russia. The TB notification rate of individuals living with HIV infection is approximately 1,700 per 100,000 HIV-infected. Because HIV attacks the immune system, HIV infection leaves patients more vulnerable to infection with all sorts of pathogens, including TB.
  4. In the early to mid-2000s, the Russian government increased its budget allocation for tuberculosis control. Russia also received a $150 million World Bank loan, two thirds of which was designated for tuberculosis. Additionally, it received a $91 million grant from the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
  5. In recent years, there have been some improvements in TB infection rates in Russia. Cases of TB in Russia decreased by 9.4 percent to a rate of 48.3 per 100,000 people in 2017. In the same vein, Russia has recently experienced a steady decline in TB morbidity and mortality. Since 2012, morbidity or disability due to TB has decreased by more than 30 percent, and mortality has decreased by more than 48 percent.
  6. The COVID-19 pandemic is interfering with TB diagnosis, prevention, treatment and control efforts worldwide. It is grimly clear that Russia will not be exempt. A recent report based on analyses of several countries, including neighboring Ukraine, predicts an additional 6.3 million cases of tuberculosis by 2025 as a result of COVID-19’s disruption of TB control efforts. Progress in the fight against TB could be set back by five to eight years. Russia is facing its TB epidemic in a world where TB kills 1.5 million people a year, more than any other infectious disease. Five years ago, world leaders pledged to end the TB epidemic by 2030. In addition, in 2018, they pledged to double TB funding by 2022. However, the COVID-19 pandemic’s diversion of attention, funding, and resources makes the realization of these TB goals unlikely.
  7. Partners in Health, a nongovernmental organization, treats TB and uses a comprehensive model of ambulatory care. They treat every patient free of charge and provide care as it is most convenient to patients, bringing medication to each patient individually twice a day. Their close relationship with patients in this community based model gives their patients up to a 90 percent cure rate. Particularly, Partners in Health established The Sputnik Initiative, where it provided social and clinical support for poor MDR-TB patients in Tomsk, Russia. This initiative allowed Partners in Health to treat 70 percent of its total 129 participants who would otherwise not receive adequate medical care.
  8. Partners in Health has success in curbing TB by integrating TB treatment with the provision of other medical care. They have established TB clinics within HIV treatment centers, which is strategic as the HIV and TB co-infection rate among the patients they treat is five percent. Additionally, they have incorporated mental health and drug addiction services into their TB treatment program in Russia. A similar integrative model could conceivably be deployed for COVID-19 once a treatment becomes available.

Tuberculosis and COVID-19 pandemics present unique challenges both individually and as they co-occur. However, existing community based treatment models for tuberculosis in Russia may contain useful lessons as we learn to treat COVID-19.

– Isabelle Breier

Photo: Flickr

The Endless War in the DonbassThe War in Donbass is still ongoing after its onset in 2014. What started as a trade disagreement between the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia, spiraled into civil protest which shifted into a bloody civil war among the protestors and the military.

Living in a War Zone

Since then, the civil war has worsened, affecting a majority of the citizens who reside in the war zone. There will be no signs of a permanent ceasefire within the country until common ground is found between the resistance and Russia’s military presence. Nick Thompson, a reporter for CNN, stated in 2016 that, “Ukraine’s prolonged stalemate is causing grief and isolation among millions living in the conflict zone, the United Nations warns, 9,500 people have been killed in the violence and more than 22,100 injured, including Ukrainian armed forces, civilians and members of armed groups, the UN says.”

Damaged Healthcare Facilities

Along with the high casualty rate, health care for citizens is becoming harder to reach due to the destruction of many hospitals and healthcare clinics in the region. Nearly one-third of medical facilities in the Donbass region have reported damage as a result of the conflict from the civil war.

The destruction of medical facilities is only worsening the burden placed on the citizens of the Donbass by the war. The significantly reduced accessibility of healthcare is compounding the many elements of poverty that have stricken the region.

A Weakened Economy

Before the war, the urbanized area of the region accounted for nearly 15 percent of Ukraine’s population and produced 16 percent of its domestic product. The GDP in Ukraine in 2013 was approximately 183.31 Billion USD until the conflict arose, which dropped the GDP by nearly 50 percent.

This reflects the economy present within the region and asserts the idea that individuals, as well as the country, are suffering from the effects of the civil war. Many have been forced out of their homes to migrate to other parts of Ukraine leaving displaced individuals in need of aid. While the EU expanded sanctions against Russia for a brief period, they shrank back in 2015, reducing Russia’s incentives to end the conflict.

The War in Donbass has permanently affected the people who once lived there or are currently residing in the war zone. This war has created many new elements of poverty by damaging the economy and reducing healthcare access. Many reforms will have to be established in order to combat against this civil war and rebuild the region once the war has ceased.

Struggling Peace Agreements

NATO has increasingly worked on their relationship with Russia in order to hinder the war but most of these agreements have failed to appease both sides.

While the outlook for the Donbass region may appear grim, the EU can still hold its considerable sanction power over Russia. Additionally, peace agreements are still in the works, despite their failures to reach a quick conclusion. A number of organizations are undergoing efforts to support the people of the region. For instance, the People’s Project of Ukraine, a non-profit organization, is engaging in crowd-sourcing efforts to support those displaced by the war. Consider donating to projects such as these if you are interested in helping the people of Ukraine.

– Elijah Jackson
Photo: Flickr

Revolution of DignityIn November 2013, student protests in Ukraine turned into a full-fledged revolution against government corruption that has since been dubbed the Revolution of Dignity. Now, with a new government in place, the country is attempting to align itself with its European neighbors and become a stable democracy. With multiple roadblocks in the way, such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Ukraine will need to rely on its allies in order to achieve its goals.  

How the Revolution of Dignity Began

Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity started out as a series of student protests to pressure the prime minister to sign an association agreement with the European Union. However, as the protests raged on, they became a catalyst for the rest of the country to express its discontent with larger issues with the government like the regime’s power grabs and rampant corruption.  

Despite these issues, protests only became a revolution when violence broke out between the government and protesters on Nov. 29, 2013. After this point, the goal became to overthrow the government and establish a more democratic state, one free of corruption and acting in the people’s best interests. In 2014, the people in overthrowing the government, reinstating the previous constitution and holding new elections in May.

While the revolution was successful, it was not without consequence. The destabilization in the country helped lead to the annexation of the southeastern Crimea region by the Russian Federation. On top of that, while the previous regime was friendly to the Russian government, the new one looked for a more independent governance supported by the E.U. and other western allies. With tough challenges ahead, Ukraine needed to look to allies for help.

What Allies Are Doing to Help

Since the protests initially started to pressure the Ukrainian president to sign an agreement with the E.U., it comes as no surprise that the E.U. is a key ally in helping Ukraine handle its political turmoil. One of the first things the newly elected government did was pass the Ukraine-European Union Associated Agreement and join the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. These moves strengthen the nation’s economic, political and cultural ties with Europe through mutually beneficial relationships.  

While the U.S. is not as geographically close to Ukraine as the E.U., it has a vested interest in keeping the region stable and independent. Currently, over $204 million is planned in foreign aid for Ukraine. Among this, 33 percent is for peace and security, 32 percent goes toward human rights, democracy and governance, 29 percent is for economic development, and six percent goes toward health. With this aid, the U.S. hopes to keep Ukraine free of Russian influence and welcome them into the western world.

Through USAID, foreign aid is being used to help out local communities of Ukrainians.  In 2017, the organization helped 50 communities effectively manage resources and become sustainable without the central government. This not only fights corruption but also helps improve the everyday lives of Ukrainians who face instability in the face of recent changes.   

Continuing Progress in Ukraine

The aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity and the struggle with Russia has left many Ukrainians in a state of upheaval. With an uncertain future and violence a real possibility, it is key that allies help the country through this traumatic point in its history. The humanitarian impact of political uncertainty is often understated in the media, but it is real. While there are larger political reasons for Ukraine’s allies to help it, the aid these allies give to the Ukrainian people has an impact on the ground that can help save many lives.

– Jonathon Ayers
Photo: Flickr

impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian economy
Much has been written about the Magnitsky Act, especially considering that it is a longstanding source of resentment among prominent Russians. However, remarkably little research has been done about the impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian economy.

What the Magnitsky Act Does

In 2014, the United States passed the Magnitsky Act, which was an effort to punish Russia for alleged human rights violations surrounding the death of a whistleblower who tried to alert the public to the alleged corruption that had been taking place in Russia for the previous several years. The intent was to sanction the individuals responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, without impacting the majority of Russian citizens who had nothing to do with it.

The Magnitsky Act is notable because it attempts to punish solely the Russians responsible for Magnitsky’s death, rather than Russia as a whole. Rather than blanket import/export bans, the Magnitsky Act freezes the assets of the Russians implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the victim for whom the legislation is named. Additionally, it bans these individuals from obtaining visas to enter the United States.

The Magnitsky Act has been followed by the Global Magnitsky Act, which applies these punishments to any citizen of any country who is suspected of aiding the activity of the Russians in question. Additionally, other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have passed their own versions of this legislation.

Impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian Economy

Although the intent of the Magnitsky Act was to have minimal impact on the Russian economy or the lives of average Russian citizens, it is fair to assume that there has been some effect. Russia retaliated in 2014 by banning all food imports from Europe and the United States for a period of one year. This is in addition to banning all adoptions of Russian children by American citizens, which has become a major point of contention in recent years.

After the passage of the original legislation, its authors stressed that the impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian economy was meant to be positive. The reasoning was that the Magnitsky Act would discourage the corruption and theft that supposedly limit Russia’s economic growth prospects. However, there is little evidence to prove that this has been uniformly the case.

Moving Forward with the Magnitsky Act

As an upper-middle income country, Russia’s standard of living and other metrics of assessing the average Russian’s state of economic affairs continue to lag behind the advanced industrial economies of the world. However, it is not possible to decisively say how much of this is due to the corruption that the Magnitsky Act and its supporters allege. More research should be done into the impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian economy, as it is difficult to say whether the authors of this legislation were right to craft it the way they did.

Because of this lack of decisive data, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of the Magnitsky Act on the Russian economy. There is no question that the Act plays an important normative role in signaling that the United States will exact consequences on violators of human rights, but whether it has the positive economic effects that its authors claimed it would is still not possible to assess. It seems likely that targeted sanctions like these could be a valuable tool to respond to potential human rights violations going forward, but they must be used with caution until a clear understanding of their broader impact is reached.

– Michaela Downey

Photo: Flickr

How the US Benefits from Foreign Aid to Serbia
Serbia is working to strengthen human rights protections and to promote economic growth within the country while facing external pressure from Russia. Russia has been expanding its influence and amplifying ethnic tensions in several countries that may join the European Union. In particular consideration of the close relations between Serbia and Russia, the U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Serbia because this aid works to prevent a new Cold War in the Balkans.

Social Benefits of Foreign Aid to Serbia

From 2001 to 2017, the U.S. gave about $800 million in aid to Serbia to help the country stimulate economic growth, promote good governance and strengthen its justice system. One example of a major issue Serbia is dealing with is human trafficking.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, Serbia remains listed as a Tier Two country because it has yet to fully comply with the minimum standard for eliminating the issue. However, Serbia has shown significant efforts to address human trafficking by establishing a permanent human smuggling and trafficking law enforcement task force, identifying more victims as well as providing guidelines to judges and prosecutors.

Other U.S. aid to Serbia in the past has gone toward strengthening its export and border controls. This includes efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. More recently, U.S. military aid has helped Serbia take part in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programs as well as prepare for international peacekeeping missions.

Economic Benefits of Aid to Serbia

From an economic standpoint, the U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Serbia through U.S. investors in the country. These investors include KKR, Philip Morris, Ball Packaging, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cooper Tire and Van Drunen Farms. In 2013, Fiat began shipping cars manufactured in Serbia to the U.S., increasing imports from the Balkan countries.

In addition, U.S. technology companies in Serbia are becoming more interested in opportunities in areas such as e-government, cloud computing, digitization, IT security and systems integration. In 2013, Microsoft even signed a $34 million contract to provide software to government offices in Serbia.

Political Benefits of Aid to Serbia

U.S. aid to Serbia is currently focused on helping the country integrate into the European Union, which will decrease Serbia’s vulnerability to Russian aggression as well as strengthen its democratic institutions. Out of the $5.39 million the U.S. plans to allot in foreign aid to Serbia in 2019, 46 percent will be allocated to strengthening the country’s rule of law and protection of human rights, 34 percent will be put toward increasing the capacity of civil society organizations and 20 percent will be for good governance.

The U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Serbia from a diplomatic perspective as well in the case of international terrorism. The Ministry of Interior Directorate of Police, the Security Information Agency and Serbia’s law enforcement and security agencies have continued to work with the U.S. to prevent this major security threat, which affects both nations as well as the rest of the world.

In the past, Serbia has hosted a regional counterterrorism conference on foreign terrorist fighting. The country has also sent representatives to conferences in Albania, Italy and Slovenia to discuss how to counter violent extremism.

There are many economic and political reasons the U.S. and Serbia would benefit from the U.S. providing aid to Serbia. Together, the two countries have great potential to make technological advancements as well as work for a more peaceful world.

– Connie Loo
Photo: Flickr

OssetiaDiscussing poverty in Georgia is difficult to do without also acknowledging the sensitive subjects of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is extensive debate over how best to describe these regions, but they are described as anything from disputed territories to de facto Russian client states propped up and recognized by few other than Russia itself. As such, poverty in Abkhazia and South Ossetia comes with its own special set of circumstances.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major turning point in the history of this part of the world and it has left lingering trauma in the region. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were relatively well-off parts of the Soviet Union, but following its collapse, they both saw their populations and their standards of living decline. The effect of this collapse is lingering poverty in Abkhazia and South Ossetia such that a majority of residents view the dissolution of the USSR in a negative light.

The current political situation in both of these territories is far from stable, even after nearly two decades of violence, suspected ethnic cleansing and political turmoil. This presents a unique set of obstacles for addressing poverty in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, particularly in Abkhazia.

Most residents of Abkhazia, regardless of ethnic group, seem to favor total independence with the exception of ethnic Armenians, who support integration into the Russian Federation. If anything, however, Russian influence is strongly cemented into the Abkhaz political sphere, which means that any changes in the status of Abkhazia will lean heavily toward deeper integration with Russia.

South Ossetia is also finding itself pulled more and more into Moscow’s orbit. However, this is less of a problem than in Abkhazia as an overwhelming majority of its ethnically homogenous population is in favor of joining the Russian Federation.

The international community continues to debate whether and how to handle this political situation, but few are confident that a solution will be reached anytime soon. Meanwhile, however, poverty in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a problem and residents are finding that few in the midst of this great power struggle are attentive to their real and pressing needs.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia face particular challenges when dealing with poverty because of their disputed political status. It is difficult for them to access international markets, but Abkhaz and Ossetian products do not necessarily fare well in Russian markets. It is also worth noting that Georgia also suffers as a result; it has lost access to Russian markets as a result of this political dispute, where prior to the conflict 70 percent of its trade volume was with Russia. The complicated political situation makes it difficult for aid to reach these regions and hinders efforts to collect accurate data.

The 2014 Winter Olympics were a beacon of hope to relieve poverty in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The goal was for tourism to nearby Sochi to help shine a light on these locales and promote tourism there as well. However, this ended when Russia, prioritizing security above all else, closed the Abkhazian and South Ossetian borders.

That being said, there are a number of actors trying to improve the situation and promote economic development in this troubled region. The UNDP in Georgia has made combating poverty, and specifically youth unemployment, a key feature of its work. Promoting youth employment is key because it not only promotes economic growth, but can also discourage young people from becoming involved in political violence.

While Abkhazia and South Ossetia face many challenges that will not abate any time soon, efforts are being made to work around the political situation to bring real change to the lives of the people in these regions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are just two reminders that even in seemingly intractable conflicts, poverty reduction is still critically important and can make a huge difference.

– Michaela Downey

Photo: Flickr

Leaky Pipes? Infrastructure in RussiaDespite high levels of foreign investment and a thriving energy sector, the development and maintenance of infrastructure in Russia remains sluggish and disproportionately benefits a small elite. Russia is one of five major emerging economies grouped under the heading “BRICS”— Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Investment in infrastructure in Russia, however, lags behind other member nations, particularly India and China.

Even with overall low rankings in infrastructure investment, Russia remains an “energy superpower” as a major exporter of oil and natural gas. Indeed, one active area of infrastructure development in Russia is pushing pipelines through Central Asia towards China in an effort to solidify the country’s hold on that market.

This commanding position hasn’t necessarily translated into widely-shared prosperity for the people of Russia. Poverty in the world’s largest country is up by nearly 15 percent. The majority of economic gains go to a fairly small privileged class. As it stands, only 110 households hold between 19 percent to 85 percent of all Russian financial assets. This uneven distribution of prosperity is in large part due to endemic corruption in Russia, facilitated by weak government institutions, a legacy of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

This disregard of the law threatens the future of investment for infrastructure in Russia. Andrey Movchan, senior fellow and director of the Economic Policy Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, opines that due to corruption state investment in infrastructure not only would likely fail to revitalize the Russian economy but might actively damage it.

The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has actively blocked efforts by the U.S. to improve governance in the nation. Putin’s administration ordered the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) to shut its operations in Russia in 2012, claiming that the organization was engaging in subversive activities. 

Domestic efforts to combat entrenched corruption likewise face challenges. Enemies of the state are notorious for being sidelined by illness, exile or death. One prominent example of such a suspicious neutralization is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant who died in prison in 2009 following his investigation into potential tax fraud. This prompted the U.S. Congress to pass sanctions in 2012 targeting Russian officials believed to have been involved in human rights violations.

Despite the risks, Russians continue to fight for their futures and for better infrastructure. Alexei Navalny, head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and a frequent inmate of Russian jails who attracts thousands to his rallies, has announced his intentions to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections.

– Joel Dishman

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