Evoking Soviet Past, Russian Legislation Mandates AIDS Tests

HUMAN rights activists here are preparing to battle over a bill that would require testing of all foreigners for HIV and deport those believed to have the virus.

The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the legislation on Oct. 28: 252 to 3, with one abstention. The bill would also mandate screening of Russians seeking jobs in the medical, food-service, and other selected professions, and would bar those found to carry the virus. HIV can lead to AIDS, doctors say.

``This type of law is reminiscent of leftover Soviet xenophobia as policy,'' says Kevin Gardner, chair of a Moscow-based AIDS-awareness organization.

``The Constitution of the Russian Federation says nothing about the control of foreigners, and according to the Constitution, Russia is an open country,'' says Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch, formerly Helsinki Watch. ``This violates general humanitarian ideas.... It is a violation of freedom of movement.''

Mass testing has been condemned by the World Health Organization as repressive and a waste of money.

The legislation still has to be passed by parliament's less powerful upper house and gain President Boris Yeltsin's signature before it becomes law. Communist and nationalist parties, which have traditionally blamed foreigners for much of Russia's challenges, dominate both houses of parliament. Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky advocates expelling all Africans from Russia because he sees them as a source of AIDS.

In February, the director of one of Moscow's leading AIDS research laboratories called for putting people with HIV into concentration camps.

Recent figures released by the Russian AIDS Center estimate that 112 people have died of AIDS in Russia since 1987, and 815 people, including about 300 children, have been found to have HIV. But Russian and foreign experts agree the actual number of cases totals more than 10,000.

``The legislation is not effective, as it creates a ... false security among the Russian population,'' says activist Irina Savelova.

It is unclear how Russia, reeling from market reforms, could afford to carry out widespread mandatory AIDS testing, which could drive out Western business.

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