The Russian annexation of Crimea poses a serious threat to the health and well-being of people who are at higher risk of HIV, including people who use drugs (PUD), sex workers, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT). HIV prevention services, such as provision of information about safer sex and supply of  free condoms and lubricants for men who have sex with men may become illegal under Russian law, as well as the provision of methadone and sterile needles for people who use drugs. The current state of insecurity has an impact on the work of Bridging the Gaps partners involved in our PUD and LGBT projects.

Propaganda for drug use

While worldwide the number of new HIV infections is decreasing, Ukraine still counts around 1,000 new infections every month. The epidemic is concentrated among people who inject drugs and sex workers. An estimated 39-50% of injecting drug users are living with HIV. Ukraine has progressive drug policies in place and a relatively new National AIDS Law includes provision for harm reduction, needle exchange and substitution treatment with methadone. More than 10,000 people who use drugs in Crimea participate in a needle exchange programme which aims to prevent HIV transmission. The Russians don’t allow such exchange programmes which they consider as ‘propaganda for drug use’. At the moment, around 800 people in the Crimea are depending on methadone. However, under Russian law, methadone is strictly illegal.

Until recently, busses with methadone supplies drove from Kiev to the Crimea, escorted by the police. But the Russians are not allowing any transports anymore. The supplies of methadone are steadily running out, with serious consequences for the persons concerned.

Elena Voskresenskaya (AFEW International)

There is a serious chance that the victims will fall back in to their old habits; searching for drugs of whatever quality. They risk their lives.

Oleksandr Ostapov, director of  Return to Life, Bridging the Gaps partner organisation which supports people who use drugs in Ukraine.

Propaganda for homosexuality

Every year, numerous tourists visit the Crimean Peninsula. Simeiz is a small Crimean town, which usually attracts a very diverse public. The town is known for its tolerance, making it one of the favourite holiday destinations for LGBT from the post-Soviet region. Last year, our local partners reached out to 2,500 LGBT community members with information on LGBT meeting places; HIV prevention information; and free condoms and lubricants. The local partner in Simferopol is the only LGBT-driven community organisation in Crimea that works on this scale. It is unclear, though, if this work can now be continued.

The only LGBT-organization in Crimea working on problems of LGBT community was forced to stop its work. As a result, difficulties with realization of HIV/STI prevention programmes have appeared there because of Russian legislation.

Oleg Alyokhin, Board Chairman of LiGA

They cannot prohibit LGBT community – it just does not exist

The question is how visible LGBT people really want to be in Crimea, knowing what the impact has been of the anti-homosexuality propaganda legislation in Russia, and the increase in hate crimes and extremist attacks. This makes LGBT people hard to reach, which could have serious consequences for the HIV epidemic. The most alarming fact is the way the online edition ‘Week arguments – Crimea’ of 16 April 2014 commented on Simferopol and Sevastopol authority’s prohibition of holding LGBT public actions. They headlined their article “They cannot prohibit LGBT community – it just does not exist”.

Elections

Also in the rest of Ukraine there is a lot of insecurity which affects the work of Bridging the Gaps in improving the health and human rights of LGBT people. Pride manifestations that were supposed to  take place in June have been postponed until after the elections. Our partner LiGA Mikolaiv was working to set up a network of LGBT-friendly doctors, but in the current political environment it is difficult to get political commitment. It is like the country has gone 20 years back in time.

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