By Marlene Kaufmann
The first Russian Forum on Health or Tobacco convened in Moscow May 28-29, 2007, under the auspices of the State Duma and in collaboration with a broad array of international organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Union Against Cancer (UICC). United States support and participation was provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Cancer Society, the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA) and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, as well as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Law.
Russia has the third highest per capita cigarette consumption in the world and some 375,000 Russians die every year from smoking-related diseases. Low cigarette taxes – which contribute to a selling price of approximately 50 cents per pack in Russia, as opposed to $5.00 in EU countries – combined with weak tobacco control legislation contribute to a growing burden on Russia’s health care system. One of the primary aims of the Forum was to educate the public, particularly young people, about the dangers and long-term effects of the use of tobacco products.
The driving force in organizing this first ever forum on tobacco control is Dr. Nikolay F. Gerasimenko, Deputy Chairman of the Health Care Committee of the State Duma, who worked with the leadership of the renown N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center and the Russian Research Institute of Pulmonology to bring the conference to fruition.
The morning plenary of the Forum was chaired by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov who expressed his strong support for the work of the Forum and efforts to curb tobacco-related diseases. Speaker Gryzlov was joined by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov, United States Ambassador William Burns and an array of celebrities from the Russian music and film industries as well as national sports figures in an appeal to the public, especially young people, to quit tobacco. House Majority Leader Congressman Steny H. Hoyer also addressed the forum through a pre-recorded video presentation. Congressman Hoyer has supported the work of NCI and the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA) in combating tobacco-related cancers, as well as ARCA’s cutting edge research in curing solid tumors.
The Forum was well attended and well covered by Russian national media and its impact was immediate. During the conference the State Duma gave tentative approval to legislation aimed at restricting smoking in public places such as restaurants and waiting lounges in train stations and airports. A Russian Anti-Tobacco League was created to consolidate the efforts of anti-tobacco forces in the Russian Federation, and in July the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Russia will join the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Bending Swords In To Plowshares
One of the sponsors of the anti-tobacco forum, the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA), represents a unique partnership between scientists in the Russian Federation and their counterparts in the United States. The primary focus of ARCA activities is the use of isotopes derived from Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles in cancer detection, diagnosis and treatment.
The Russian partners in the Alliance include the N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research center in Moscow and the Russian Research Center at the Kurchatov Institute. On the U.S. side, the Alliance partners are the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore. In addition to these partners, ARCA has developed relationships with a number of other hospitals and research institutions in Russia and the U.S. Each member of the Alliance brings unique strengths and talents to what is a true intellectual and scientific partnership. These scientific strengths have been coupled with a strong commitment on the part of the two nations to work together on the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
In conjunction with the Moscow Forum on Tobacco or Health, ARCA and NCI representatives met with senior members of the Russian Academy of Sciences to discuss possible joint nanohybrid studies dedicated to scientific projects and clinical trials to develop new methods of diagnosis and treatment for a broad range of cancers.
The collaborative research projects that are being conducted as part of the ARCA partnership involving the use of Russian radioisotopes are yielding extremely promising results. Although these isotopes were created for more sinister purposes, they are now being utilized in research aimed at reducing the burden of cancer in both the U.S. and the Russian Federation – demonstrating that those who once were enemies can now work together for the common good. It is the hope of all associated with the ARCA effort that the collaboration can continue and that the Russian isotopes produced for weapons of mass destruction can be converted to instruments of mass benefit.
Unfortunately, prospects for advancement in other areas of Russian society are not so bright. It is certainly true that, in Moscow at least, business is booming — attributable in large part to growing energy revenues. New commercial construction and infrastructure projects abound, the retail sector is flourishing, and there is a rising middle class. These apparently liberalizing economic trends are, however, not accompanied by liberalizing democratic trends, in fact, quite the opposite.
Many respected civil society and non-governmental organizations whose goal is to promote civic and political engagement and enhance democratic development and the rule of law have been harassed and intimidated by the tax police and other government entities. Some, like Open Russia, have been forced to shut down for alleged violations of finance controls. The three national TV networks are essentially controlled by the Kremlin and much of the print media is controlled by one or another level of government or business interests sympathetic to the government. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since the year 2000, fourteen journalists have been murdered in the Russian Federation in retaliation for their professional activities, making Russia the third most dangerous country for journalists (after Iraq and Algeria). None of these killings have been solved, although authorities claim progress in some cases. Among the victims was renowned investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered gangland-style in Moscow in November 2006.
Commission Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin wrote to President Vladimir Putin in June expressing serious concern about the lack of media freedom in Russia. On August 2, 2007 the Commission convened a hearing on “Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region,” with a particular focus on developments in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The rule of law is under assault in Russia as well. Recently the Prosecutor General in Moscow filed a request with the Moscow Bar Association to disbar Karinna Moskalenko, one of Russia’s most distinguished human rights lawyers. Moskalenko is a member of the International Commission of Jurists and through her Center for International Protection in Moscow has represented, among many others, the family of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, imprisoned Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and political activist Gary Kasparov.
In addition to the courts of the Russian Federation, Ms. Moskalenko pursues the interests of her clients before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, where she has had many successes – apparently sparking the Kremlin’s ire and, according to some observers, generating the pending disbarment procedure. Commission Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Congressman Christopher H. Smith joined other members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in a May 24, 2007 letter to President Putin urging withdrawal of the disbarment request.
Sadly, many observers of civil society and those in the NGO community in Russia see little hope of positive change in this situation in the near term notwithstanding upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December 2007 and March 2008 respectively. The good news is, it does not appear that those who support democratic development in Russia are throwing up their arms in defeat. Rather, they remain steadfast and appear to be girding themselves for the long haul.