Following U.S. Senate approval of legislation to reauthorize the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that includes a provision to ease HIV/AIDS-related travel restrictions, Russian government officials have said they are considering replicating the U.S. measure, "an indication that Russia may end mandatory HIV tests for foreign residents," the Moscow Times reports.
According to the Times, European Union countries and some former Soviet republics, such as Azerbaijan, do not have entry restrictions for HIV-positive people. Russia remains one of a dozen countries -- including Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan -- that bar long-term stays and immigration to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Top HIV/AIDS officials for the Russian government have said it is "high time" that the country's restrictions be lifted. A spokesperson for the Health and Social Development Ministry said there are no current plans to rescind a 1995 law that requires foreign nationals to pass an HIV test to receive a visa to stay in Russia for more than three months. However, the Times reports that ministry officials are closely watching the PEPFAR legislation. An official said the ministry is waiting to see the details of the final U.S. bill before considering its own steps. "It is not clear yet whether the ban will be rescinded completely or the legislation will be changed through a number of amendments," an official said. Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal AIDS Center and the country's top HIV/AIDS official, said, "If they will do it in the States, then it is very likely that it can happen in Russia, too." Pokrovsky said that the restrictions are a "violation of human rights because it limits the freedom of movement."
Konstantin Poltoranin, a spokesperson for the Federal Migration Service, said HIV testing is not required for visits of up to three months and for those who enter the country with tourist visas. "If an HIV test done in Russia reveals that a person has HIV, the law says we have to deport [that] person, for example, a student, from the country," Poltoranin said. However, Valery Zubov, a State Duma deputy and a member of a government working group on HIV/AIDS, said there is no public health rationale for the restrictions.
Avet Khachaturyan, director of the Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS in Russia and Ukraine, said that Russia's restrictions were adopted during a time of ignorance and fear about HIV in the country. "To address the problem, the state should create a policy of openness and go forward by spreading proper information regarding the ways the disease is transmitted," Khachaturyan said, adding, "We should understand that bans do not work but urge some people to hide their HIV status." Corinna Reinicke, coordinator of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS program in Russia, said restrictions have a stigmatizing rather than preventive effect. "The International AIDS Society condemns such a ban as discriminatory," Reinicke said, adding that when HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination are part of government policies or legislation, they are "one of the major obstacles to an effective response to HIV."
Nevertheless, Zubov said legislation to lift the restrictions would be difficult to implement. "It is not popular to lobby for the interests of HIV/AIDS people in the Duma, but bans and barriers that create the illusion that the problem is being tackled are easy to introduce," Zubov said. According to the Times, government officials did not say whether lifting the ban would lead to an end of tests for diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, syphilis and leprosy, which foreigners are required to take to obtain work permits (Osadchuk, Moscow Times, 7/18).