Russia on Tuesday delayed indefinitely the enforcement of a controversial law requiring that anyone who wishes to visit the country for more than three months be tested for AIDS.
But Health and Foreign Ministry officials have left no doubt that, as soon as they can work out a way, they intend to require proof that visa applicants are free of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
The law, signed by President Boris N. Yeltsin in April, officially took effect Tuesday. It requires business travelers, students, journalists, teachers, tourists and anyone else wishing to stay for more than three months to submit a certificate stating that he or she has tested negative for HIV, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail V. Demurin.
But crucial details have yet to be decided, including: exactly which medical authorities could sign such a certificate; how long before a trip here an HIV test would have to be performed, and how tests would be administered to foreigners already in Russia.
Health Ministry officials have said a signed doctor’s certificate would be accepted. But Demurin deepened the confusion Tuesday by saying the certificates would be issued by “the authorized national laboratory or its subsidiaries in countries where Russia has embassies or consulates.”
Western health experts say labs in Russia that test for acquired immune deficiency syndrome are unreliable. Russian law demands that any foreigner infected with HIV be deported.
The new requirement is likely to present tricky issues for the growing number of American companies that want to station employees in Russia. U.S. law prohibits them from requiring employees to submit to an AIDS test; employees who consent to be tested for AIDS for a Russian stint might find their privacy in jeopardy if their results were positive.
Meanwhile, confusion and fear over the new rules have led to many canceled tourist bookings. An earlier version of the law would have required all visitors here, including tourists, to be tested. Although the final version of the law requires testing only for those who plan to stay more than three months, misinformation persists--even among Russian officials.
Last week, 16 tourists who planned to visit St. Petersburg were told by the Russian Consulate in Brussels that they needed AIDS tests to get visas, said Steve Caron, who runs the St. Petersburg International Hostel.
“They were all turned down"--and canceled their trips, he said, adding, “The Russian government always seems to put up obstacles to tourism.” He noted that procedures for getting visas and registering tourists have become more burdensome. The new law, he said, “just creates so many hassles that are so unnecessary.”
Russian lawmakers and some health officials here insist the law is needed to curb the spread of AIDS. Only 154 Russians reportedly have died of AIDS, and just 967 others are known to be HIV-infected, the Health Ministry asserts.
But activists say the real number of those infected is at least 10 times higher and that the number of AIDS cases is growing rapidly. At least 452 HIV-positive foreigners have been deported from the former Soviet Union since 1987.
International health groups, AIDS activists and Russia’s senior AIDS expert have denounced the law. They say it will do nothing to prevent the disease from spreading and, instead, will siphon off money that could better be spent on AIDS education programs.