7 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 34
NALCHIK LAWYER SAYS SUSPECTS BEING TORTUREDBy Aminat Kardanova and Jean-Christophe Peuch
The U.S.-based pressure group Human Rights Watch recently accused security forces in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkariya of using abuse and ill-treatment to coerce confessions from suspects detained over October's militant raids on the regional capital Nalchik. Lawyers for people arrested in the wake of the attack now say they have evidence their clients are being tortured in police custody.
Pictures are circulating of Rasul Kudaev before and after his arrest following the deadly Nalchik raids. Before, Kudaev is at home, looking relaxed and happy. After, Kudaev is almost unrecognizable, with the lower part of his face swollen to grotesque proportions. His lawyer, Aleksandra Zernova, along with other Russian lawyers have sent 15 such photographs to Western media and human rights organizations.
Several Russian news outlets -- including the "Gazeta" daily and the "newsru.com" information site -- have published some of the photographs. Zernova said the pictures are irrefutable evidence that Kudaev and fellow Nalchik detainees -- all arrested on suspicion of ties with Islamic militants -- are being tortured.
Speaking with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service by telephone from London, Zernova accused authorities in Kabardino-Balkariya of lying to relatives and lawyers about the conditions in which the detainees are being held.
"The chief doctor at the detention facility where Rasul is being held has repeatedly told Rasul's mother that everything was fine with her son, that no one was tormenting him," Zernova said. "Now, with these photographs, we can see for ourselves. We have evidence that authorities are telling us utter lies."
But Zernova said authorities continue to deny the detainees are being tortured despite the publication of the photographs. "They say no violation has been committed. Rasul's mother, Fatima Tekaeva, last Friday (2 December) was summoned to the regional prosecutor's office," Zernova said. "People there asked her why she thinks her son is being abused. They told her she had no evidence to sustain her claims. And all this came after these photographs had been published in the press."
This is not Kudaev's first arrest. He was detained in Afghanistan in 2001 on suspicion of ties with the country's ousted ruling Taliban militia. The U.S. military command later sent him to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Kudaev and other Russian Guantanamo detainees were released in May 2004 after U.S. military authorities reportedly found the evidence against them inconclusive. They were then moved to a detention facility in the southern Russian city of Pyatigorsk before being authorized to return home.
But Kudaev's brother Arsen told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that was not the end of their troubles. "When they were released from Pyatigorsk, people from the [Russian] Prosecutor-General's Office told them this was not a farewell and that they would see each other soon," Kudaev said. "And that proved to be true. [Even before 23 October], they came periodically to take Rasul away."
Arsen Kudaev recalled on episode when armed men wearing masks assaulted his brother before hauling him away in a car with no registration plates: "They beat him up near our house before throwing him into a car and taking him away to the [Interior Ministry's] anti-organized crime directorate," Kudaev said. "They released him only after Aleksandra Zernova had started calling people from London to inquire where he was. They released him after four hours without bringing any charges. They kept him four hours and released him. Our mother wrote to the [republican] prosecutor's office to complain, and the only answer she got was a note saying these people had done nothing illegal and that Rasul had not been physically abused."
Human-rights campaigners in Kabardino-Balkariya say the October raid on Nalchik has triggered a new wave of harassment against Muslims whose observance falls outside the republic's strictures of official Islam.
Nearly all eyewitness accounts of the raid suggest the attack was carried out by young Nalchik residents led by a small group of experienced fighters. People in Nalchik say many of the attackers were young Muslim dissidents who had long been enduring police abuse and turned to violence out of despair.
Russian authorities have admitted to arresting nearly 50 people in connection with the Nalchik raid. But rights campaigners believe the number of detainees is much higher. Claims that some people died in police custody have not been independently verified.
In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch said at least eight people detained on suspicion of ties to the October raids were subjected to ill treatment "that in some cases may amount to torture." The group called upon Russian law-enforcement agencies to stop using torture in security operations officially aimed at fighting terrorism. But reports from the region suggest little has changed. Arsen Kudaev said what happened to his brother is not an isolated case. Many people, he added, have also disappeared without a trace, and "no one knows where they are."
ADYGEA'S MUSLIM COMMUNITY STIRRED BY RECENT POLICE ASSAULTSBy Jean-Christophe Peuch
In Russia's northwestern Caucasus republic of Adygea, police have recently been accused of violent actions against young Muslims. The motives for these unprecedented incidents are unclear. Still, they have left a negative imprint on Adygea's Muslim community, which fears more attacks in the future.
Adygea is a tiny, landlocked region that, 14 years ago, was granted the status of an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation enclosed within the Krasnodar Territory.
Muslim Adygeans, an indigenous Circassian people, account for approximately one-fourth of the republic's 446,000-strong population. Orthodox Russians represent the largest ethnic group with more than 68 percent.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as violence was spreading across the Caucasus, Adygea managed to maintain a rare record of ethno-religious harmony and political stability. But tensions have increased recently as regional leaders have tried to counter Moscow's plans to reintegrate Adygea into the Krasnodar Territory, of which it was part until 1991.
Against this political background, religious passions have also surfaced. In July, a small group of Muslims demonstrated in the republic's capital Maykop to protest against the construction of a monument to Nicholas the Wonderworker, Russia's patron saint.
A more serious incident took place on 22 October, when armed police officers allegedly assaulted and apprehended a group of young Muslims as they were leaving Maykop's mosque. Among those detained was Ruslan Khakirov, the mosque's imam. He told RFE/RL that masked policemen dragged them toward a minibus and drove them to the Interior Ministry's Anti-Organized Crime Department where they were further beaten and questioned. "Most of their questions had something to do with religion. Among other things, they asked us why we were wearing beards, why we were observing Islamic norms of hygiene, etc. They thought these were overt signs of [religious extremism]," Khakirov said. Khakirov and his five co-detainees were eventually taken to the main directorate of Adygea's Interior Ministry. He says that police forced them to sign a statement saying they had been detained for hooliganism. They spent the night handcuffed in a prison cell. The following morning, a Maykop court refused to prosecute the detainees and ordered their immediate release. Earlier this month on 6 November, Khakirov was again reportedly assaulted.
The imam declined to elaborate on this second incident that took place on the staircase of his apartment building. However, he told local reporters at the time he had identified his aggressor as one of the policemen who had questioned him two weeks before. This violence would have perhaps gone unnoticed, were it not for one troubling detail: Khakirov and at least one other victim of the 22 October incident belong to the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Adygea and Krasnodar Territory.
Zaur Dzeukozhev, a legal adviser to the Circassian Congress, one of Adygea's two Circassian national movements, told our correspondent the incidents have left a profound imprint on the Muslim community, mainly because of the victims' identity.
"The fact that it was members of the Spiritual Board who were assaulted has generated an overall feeling that no one should now consider himself, or herself, immune from such incidents. That precisely Muslims known for their loyalty toward the government should be attacked like that is rather strange," Dzeukozhev said.
The prosecutor's office in Maykop has ordered an investigation into the 22 October incident and Adygea's Interior Minister Vasili Smirnov has reportedly vowed to take action against those responsible. Among those who have demanded a probe into the attacks is Nurbi Yemizh, the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Adygea and Krasnodar Territory.
In a letter sent last month to President Khazret Sovmen, Adygea's chief mufti said the assaults had left his flock in a state of "extreme tension" and in fear of new police violence. However, in comments made to RFE/RL this week, Yemizh denied anything extraordinary had happened:
"What incidents? Who assaulted whom? There are, in each region [of the Russian Federation], laws that say residents much carry [internal] passports and that police have the right to check the identity of every single citizen. There is nothing unusual here," Yemizh said. Yemizh said that "people who are seeking to stir conflicts in Adygea" were responsible for exaggerating the incidents:
Regional commentators have suggested that the violence displayed by the Maykop police may be a direct consequence of last month's bloody militant raids on Nalchik, the capital of the nearby republic of Kabardino-Balkariya.
Independent reports from Nalchik suggest most of the raiders were young Muslim believers who were at odds with the official clergy and had long been suffering from police violence.
Adygea's Interior Minister Smirnov has himself suggested a possible connection between what happened in Maykop and Nalchik, saying he had put police forces on alert in the wake of the raids in Kabardino-Balkariya.
Khakirov's recollection of his night in police custody suggests that the police's motives for detaining them were connected with what happened in Nalchik.
"They [police officers] told us they were doing that because of what happened in Nalchik, although we have nothing to do with [those events]. We've never done anything against the constitution, or called for anything. They behaved with us like this just because of the way we look," Khakirov said.
In comments posted earlier this month (7 November) on Chechnya's Kavkaz-Center pro-independence website, Ruslan Achmiz, a member of Adyghe Khase, Adygea's other Circassian national movement, expressed concerns about the republic's non-Muslim population being won over by Islamophobia.
Khakirov is less alarmist. Yet, he says what happened to him and his friends may herald unpleasant developments for Adygea's future stability. "I don't know [whether there is a specific trend here], but I know that what happened doesn't bode well for the future. It could have a very negative impact on the way people look at Islam in Adygea," Khakirov said. "These incidents have stirred our congregation and the way those police officers behaved will bring nothing good. It will bring nothing good to Muslims. Neither will it bring anything good to non-Muslims. This should have never happened in our peaceful republic." Dzeukozhev of the Circassian Congress fears religious incidents may multiply as Adygea's future administrative status remains unclear. Especially, he says, after his organization pressed Moscow to recognize what he calls the "genocide of the Circassian people" that accompanied Russia's conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. He believes the recent police incidents should be examined in this broader context.
"I may be wrong, of course, but I have the impression that these incidents may also be due to the fact that some people are trying to play the religion card. It looks as if these people were seeking to push the [political] debate onto the religious field," Dzeukozhev said. "This would make it easier for them to settle all these issues. Should the debate move onto a purely religious field, these forces would certainly find it much easier to settle the Circassian problem in a way that would suit them. This would allow them to tell the international community that they are engaged in a fight against 'bad' Muslims."
Adygea was always considered one of the most stable republics in the North Caucasus. But the recent police violence has triggered concerns of a possible "witch hunt" against Adygea's young Muslims, regardless of their attitude toward official Islam.
SERGEI MIRONOV TALKS TO RFE/RLSergei Mironov, Federation Council speaker and the chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation, appeared on 20 November on Radio Liberty's "Face to Face" program.
RFE/RL: Questions will be asked by the Moscow bureau chief of "El Pais;" Pilar Bonet, the editor of the politics section of "Vedomosti;" Maksim Blikin; and myself, Mikhail Sokolov. Sergei Mikhailovich [Mironov], I would like to start with recent appointments in Russia's leadership. They were met with mixed reviews.... How did you react to President Vladimir Putin's decision?
ergei Mironov: Very positively, and I make no links between this and the upcoming presidential election in 2008. There are still over two years to go before the Russian people elect a new leader, which they will via a popular, legitimate vote. Therefore, interpreting the president's decisions from this point of view is, in my opinion, a waste of time. Why do I respond so positively to these appointments? First of all, I'm talking about the appointment of Dmitrii Medvedev as the first deputy chairman of the cabinet, and the appointment of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as deputy premier.
I think a "fist" of cadres has been formed in order to push Russia's bureaucracy into a position where it is responsible for things like the national programs, which President Putin mentioned on 5 November. I know both Ivanov and Medvedev quite well. Among other things, Ivanov has the task of maintaining the normal functioning of Russia's defense industry. There was recently a big meeting held at the Defense Ministry, where they rightfully discussed the issue of supply. I travel around the country a lot, I visit the military complexes, and I can tell you that any military complex in Russia has the responsibility of adhering to the supply demands of the ministry. This is why in this sphere we need special leadership, and I am confident that this will be fulfilled by Ivanov as deputy premier. As for Dmitri Medvedev, he is a brilliant manager and a sober, modern politician, who will adequately push the ministers....
Bonet: If I remember correctly, when you assumed your post, you said that you wanted there to be a reelection in the Federation Council, and that you had a new legislation package concerning the election of senators. What you didn't mention was at what stage this new project is at, and whether you have changed your mind since then.
Mironov: My views have not changed. I think the most democratic form of restructuring the Federation Council is by implementing a system of popular voting. The package that you are talking about is still on my desk. It is constantly being reviewed and modified, particularly from a legal point of view, because it touches on some very delicate issues. I think it is possible to implement a popular voting system. The constitution states that the Federation Council has two representatives from each federative district -- one from the executive branch and one from the legislative branch.
Here's the essence of my proposal: instead of electing them all on one day, we should elect them as part of regional elections. We should keep the representation of two branches of government, but with the amendment that candidates should be nominated by the branches themselves. The decision will then be up to the people in the regions. I suggest that these elections take place at the same time as the election of deputies to regional legislative bodies.
Why do I think we haven't seen this process take place yet? A secondary reason, but one that still deserves mention, is the purely legal matter that a number of steps must be taken before it is suggested that the constitution be modified. I am trying to avoid this. The main reason is that, starting 1 January, we have managed to pass a law, under which the authorities in regional districts, be it governors or legislative authorities, do not have the right to withdraw their representatives to the Federation Council without sufficiently substantiating their decisions. I feel now that we have a stable team. My idea was actually motivated by my desire to protect the council from the voluntarism of regional authorities. Again, though due to the recent stability there is not such a pressing need for my reform, I still believe it will eventually be passed, because it is the most democratic one.
Blikin: There have been recent discussions about a joint constitution for Russia and Belarus. There are still debates about whether or not the president should be elected by popular vote or whether there should be a single president, as opposed to the way things are working now. It is still unclear when the two leaders will get together and resolve these issues. How do you feel about this?
Mironov: To answer your first question, neither the Russian nor the Belarusian side has discussed the question of a single leader. There would be a joint parliament, some sort of cabinet, but the presidents will remain sovereign leaders of their respective states. This is, at least, what is being discussed in the constitutional project. It is, actually, almost complete for submission to the Supreme Council. So far, this issue has not been addressed, and I doubt that it ever will be. As for your second question, the meeting will take place in the coming months, maybe weeks. The reason it has taken so long is that both sides want to look at the constitutional project soon and then submit it for the usual procedure: referendum, vote, etc. So, of course, the process is going slower than we would like, but it's on track.
Sokolov: Are you afraid that the same thing might happen here as it did with the common currency, that everything will be postponed at the last minute at the Belarusians' initiative?
Mironov: Of course, there can be no guarantees here, but I do know of the Belarusian President's [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] positive resolve as well as that of my colleagues, who think there is no reason for worries, judging by the way things stand now. However, making predictions in politics, where there are two sides involved, is a rather futile process.
Sokolov: Another appointment, which you have not commented on yet, is that of Sergei Sobianin, a regional district authority. Your chamber also represents the regional districts. How do you interpret this? Why was it necessary to invite a governor?
Mironov: This is, at least, an interesting decision, in the sense that it is a response, of sorts, to the eternal issue of appointment. It has often been said that we do not have any sort of reserve of cadres, that we always "reshuffle the same deck," but I've always said that our regional districts are represented by very prominent and independent politicians, who have clearly surpassed the regional level. I believe that Sergei Sobianin is that kind of individual. I know him well -- this summer I spent three days visiting his Khimenskaia region. He is a very sober, modern manager, a bright politician, and a brilliant jurist. I think he will surely prove himself at this new post. I understand he now faces the task of acquainting himself with the situation. This is a new level for him in terms of the complexity and bulk of work, but I have no doubt that he will manage. I offered no comment for the simple reason that it concerns the president's administration. He knows best what kind of people he needs, and the same goes for his recent appointments in the near east and in the Volga region.
Bonet: Energy is playing an increasingly bigger role in relations between Russia and other countries, particularly the CIS countries. It is sometimes the case that Russia exports the same product to two different countries at two different prices, which has nothing to do with the cost of production. An example is Armenia and Georgia. In fact, the Georgian parliament announced recently that the country is considering withdrawal from the CIS. How do you feel about the use of energy as an instrument of international policy?
Mironov: Perhaps, I will disappoint listeners by saying this, but if Russia really wanted to use this factor, there's a Russian saying, "it wouldn't seem so little." Russia has different priorities and principles in relations with its close neighbors, primarily the CIS countries. I must say, this is sometimes to the detriment of our own economy and other factors, like international relations, which we would certainly not want to undermine. This is why the fact that there are different conditions and terms of trade is not substantiated by political pressure or political games, but merely by a pragmatic approach.
You mentioned the Georgian question. I sincerely regret the fact that the Georgian delegation did not attend the interparliamentary assembly. I hope to see them, especially [Georgian parliament speaker] Nina Burdjanadze, during the spring session. I think emotions are not the best of advisers. I must say, in this situation, when members of the Georgian parliament supposedly did not receive visas -- I say "supposedly" because at the time when Burdzhanadze filed her complaint her visa had already been processed -- or experience some sort of delay, this reflects poorly on the functioning of the Russian Embassy and its staff. There is nothing else I can say, because there is no legal basis for us not to grant visas to members of an international delegation, who are attending an international parliamentary forum. Thank God our laws are being abided by, but efficiency is something that we must pay attention to. I don't think long-term conclusions should be made from this minor and insignificant incident, although it is regrettable. Again, I have publicly expressed my apologies. I think that the benefits of cooperation, including the parliamentary line, always outweigh those of the lack thereof. Actually, on what was expected to be the eve of her departure, Nina Burdjanadze called me and I included in the topics for discussion for the next day the issue of the Ossetia question. She rightfully said that we cannot miss out on the opportunity to use any platform, especially one like the interparliamentary forum.
THE GAS IMPASSEBy Jan Maksymiuk
Talks about Russian gas transit across Ukraine and Russian gas supplies to Ukraine for 2006 came to a standstill on 29 November.
If both sides fail to reach a compromise within the following month, the impasse may also affect a number of other European countries, to which Russia currently imports nearly 120 billion cubic meters of gas annually through Ukrainian pipelines. Under the current barter arrangement, Ukraine is to receive 23 billion cubic meters of Russian gas in 2005 as payment for the transit of Russian gas across Ukraine. Gazprom prices its gas for Ukraine at $50 for 1,000 cubic meters, while Naftohaz Ukrayiny charges $1.093 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas per 100 kilometers of transit. Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom on 28 November accused the Ukrainian oil and gas transport company Naftohaz Ukrayiny of sabotaging the talks.
Naftohaz Ukrayiny responded by saying that Gazprom's new conditions for gas transit to Europe and gas supplies to Ukraine sound like "ultimatums," adding that it would be Gazprom's sole responsibility if the Russian gas transit to Europe across Ukraine were to be interrupted.
Both sides are basing their arguments on the same governmental agreement signed in 2003.
Naftohaz Ukrayiny wants to retain the barter payment system and has argued that, under the agreement, Gazprom cannot demand an increase in gas price prior to 2009 or a change of the barter scheme prior to 2013.
Gazprom is sticking to another of the agreement's provisions. It says that, according to the agreement, specific conditions of gas transit, such as tariffs and the form of payment, should be determined on a yearly basis in a special protocol.
Gazprom said on 28 November that it had offered to Ukraine to sign a gas transit protocol for 2006 in accordance with international norms and under "European tariffs." The gas giant also said it wants to sign such a protocol ahead of discussing the price of gas supplies to Ukraine for 2006.
It is not clear what new transit tariff Gazprom is ready to pay to Naftohaz Ukrayiny. According to the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily, the "European" gas transit tariff is $2-$2.5 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers.
What does seem likely is that Gazprom will hike the price that Ukraine pays for its gas.
Gazprom deputy head Aleksandr Ryazanov indicated as much on 29 November. "Of course, with the [former] price of $80 [for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas] at the border with Germany, the price of $50 for Ukraine, excluding transportation costs, was considered acceptable," Ryazanov said. "But when this price [for Germany] becomes $200, the price of $50 is too small. It doesn't even cover our real costs for production and transportation of the gas to the CIS countries."
Some Russian media reported earlier this year that Gazprom wants Ukraine to pay $160 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas. That could be a big extra burden for Ukraine.
According to a calculation in the 29 November issue of "Vremya novostei," if Ukraine and Russia switch to "European" tariffs for gas transit and supplies, Ukraine will be unable to balance the purchase of the current volume of Russian gas with gas transit charges alone and will have to pay an extra $2 billion annually to Gazprom. This calculation, if correct, would explain why Naftohaz Ukrayiny has been reluctant to accept Gazprom's new proposals.
Until now, the Russian-Ukrainian gas talks have been conducted between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny -- that is, formally at a corporate level. But some observers in both Russia and Ukraine have suggested that the current impasse can only be resolved by a political compromise, namely between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yushchenko.
What could lie behind such a compromise?
One of the possible answers is that Moscow, by taking a tough stance on 2006 gas prices, is trying to push Kyiv into accepting Russian conditions for the creation of a free trade zone within the Single Economic Space (SES) of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the four countries agreed to draft 29 principal accords on the SES free trade zone to make them ready for signing in December. Ukraine has so far agreed to sign 10 of these accords, arguing that the remaining ones would limit its sovereignty. Earlier this month in Moscow, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko reportedly told a Ukrainian delegation that Kyiv has a clear choice -- either to sign 29 of them or none at all.
That the Russian-Ukrainian gas talks may somewhat be connected with the SES was indirectly confirmed by President Yushchenko this week.
Yushchenko suggested for the first time during his presidency that it would be logical for Ukraine to transfer a part of its sovereignty to supranational bodies if the country wanted to take advantage of the SES's joint market.
"Let us imagine that we have a free flow of goods, services, and capital, and we have a unified transit policy [within the SES]," Yushchenko said in Kyiv on 28 November, according to the BBC's Ukrainian Service. "What next? A tariff policy. If we accept these three things, then an obvious question will present itself: How to transfer a part of national sovereignty in order to form and pursue these three policies?"
But while the connection between the SES and Russian gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 has yet to be confirmed, it is already clear that Russia has begun to use gas supplies to CIS countries as a political tool.
Moscow has unambiguously signaled that it wants to considerably increase gas prices for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in 2006. At the same time, Putin said Belarus will continue to receive Russian gas at an unchanged, discount price of $48.68 per 1000 cubic meters.
HIV STRIKES HARD AT YOUNG WOMEN, CHILDRENBy Claire Bigg
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Russians had never even heard of HIV or AIDS. Almost 15 years later, low public awareness and a lack of political will to stem the spread of the virus have left Russia with the biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe, according to a new UN report. Russian authorities are starting to publicly acknowledge the extent of the crisis and take action to fight the epidemic, which is rapidly spreading among children. But sufferers and their families say much needs to be done to overcome the intense stigma and discrimination associated with the disease.
Tamara Manannikova rarely feels welcome anywhere in her native Kaliningrad since she adopted Svetlana, a three-year-old girl with HIV.
Tamara's family has shunned contact with them. Svetlana is banned from kindergartens and playgrounds. When she adopted Svetlana, who was abandoned by her HIV-positive mother in a hospital, Tamara did not expect the level of hostility she has encountered.
She said discrimination towards her daughter is rife even among health workers. "Last year we tried to undergo a neurological examination here in Moscow, but we were refused only because the child is infected," Manannikova said. "Once, a speech therapist came to see us wearing a mask and gloves -- only a protective suit was missing. I would very much like to call on our government to somehow carry out prevention work. Very little is being done." Svetlana's story is sadly common in Russia.
HIV arrived late in Russia, largely due to the country's relative isolation during the Soviet period. The first case was reported in 1987. Today, over 330,000 people in Russia have been diagnosed with the virus, although some estimates put the number of HIV sufferers at 1.5 million -- about 2 percent of the adult population. According to a 21 November United Nations report, less than 10 percent of people with HIV are receiving anti-retroviral therapy.
Experts say that the Russian government's reluctance to address sex-related issues -- a tendency inherited from the Soviet past -- has contributed to the rapid spread of HIV. By 2001, according to UNICEF, the UN's children's fund, the country already had one of the fastest-growing infection rates in the world.
The lack of public dialogue, together with the disease's popular association with drug users, has helped foster deeply ingrained misconceptions and prejudices about HIV/AIDS.
The epidemic was largely fuelled by the explosion of intravenous drug use in the mid-1990s. Now, the virus has entered wider sections of the population, mainly through sexual transmission. In recent years, the number of young women and children living with the virus has soared.
According to the UN report on HIV/AIDS, 20 babies are born to HIV-positive mothers every day in Russia. In some regions, over 1 percent of pregnant women have HIV. Of the 21,000 babies born to infected mothers since the start of the epidemic, 1,500 have been abandoned.
Experts say the severe stigma and discrimination HIV sufferers face in Russia is particularly damaging in the case of children. Carel de Rooy is the Russia representative for UNICEF. He says HIV is threatening to rob children not only of their health, but also of their education.
"There has been a survey undertaken by UNICEF in 2004 in 10 of the 89 regions of the Russian Federation to look at the attitude of the state, of institutions, vis-a-vis children with HIV and we found that not a single child with HIV has been accepted into a kindergarten, into school basically," de Rooy said. "That in itself is already a very clear signal that the attitudes are horrendous, are terrible right now and that a lot of work has to be done."
Health experts have long warned of an impending HIV/AIDS catastrophe, but have said that the Russian government has been slow to react to the epidemic.
Russia's federal budget in 2005 allocated a mere 4.5 million dollars for HIV monitoring, prevention, treatment, and research.
There are signs, however, that the authorities are waking up to the crisis. In September, President Vladimir Putin called for a 20-fold increase in HIV/AIDS spending.
High-ranking officials have also started to admit openly Russia's shortcomings in dealing with the epidemic. Speaking to reporters in early November, Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov called AIDS a "national priority" and acknowledged that Russia had done too little to fight the disease.
"All these figures are forcing us to take certain measures, and what we have done so far is clearly not enough. Problems connected with the treatment of patients, with the prevention of the disease, with the diagnosis, problems connected with organizing the life of these children, are very acute in the Russian Federation. The programs that we've carried out so far have proved clearly insufficient," Starodubov said.
Starodubov said the government has set itself the task of providing treatment for up to 15,000 HIV sufferers by the end of next year. Russia also plans a widespread campaign to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, including programs to inform medical students and physicians about the disease.
Some 7,500 people have died of AIDS in Russia so far. Experts say the number of deaths is likely to increase dramatically as the people who contracted the virus -- which takes on average 10 to 12 years to become fatal -- in the mid-1990s will start dying of AIDS.