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Friday, Jan. 4, 2013
Russia's orphans as political pawns
Russia has closed the year with one of the more odious and misguided acts of public policy in a long time. On Dec. 28, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans Americans from adopting Russian children and imposes other sanctions in retaliation for a new U.S. human rights law.
This venting of national spleen, intended to salve wounded Russian pride, victimizes anew the weakest and most vulnerable members of Russia. It should be repealed immediately.
"Dima's Law" is named after Dima Yakovlev, an adopted Russian child who died in 2008 after being left unattended by his adoptive father of Virginia in an overheated car for several hours. It bans the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
It also outlaws nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the United States and imposes a visa ban and asset freeze on Americans accused of violating the rights of Russians abroad.
Before signing the law, Mr. Putin had said the U.S. had showed little concern over the rights of Russian adoptees. He considers this "a lack of respect for Russia." The Russian Foreign Ministry has identified 19 cases over the past two decades where adoptees had died from violence or neglect. And this is, said the Foreign Ministry, just the tip of the iceberg.
The ministry also expressed "alarm" over the harsh treatment accorded children in the U.S., pointing, among other things, to the practice of corporal punishment.
That all sounds high-minded, but the real reason for the Russian legislation was a tit-for-tat response to "The Magnitsky Act," a U.S. bill that bars the entry into the U.S. of Russians accused of involvement in the death Sergei Magnitsky while he was in custody.
Magnitsky, a lawyer, was jailed in November 2008 after exposing a multimillion-dollar fraud allegedly perpetrated by senior Russian police officials. He died in prison a year later after being charged with fraud himself. Russian officials insist his death was an accident. In a press conference earlier in December, Mr. Putin said Magnitsky died of heart failure. The Kremlin's human rights council said Magnitsky was probably beaten to death.
Heaping on insult after closing the case upon his death, the Russian government signaled that it will now try Magnitsky posthumously for fraud. And, two weeks ago, a Russian court dropped charges against the only person ever tried in connection with his death. Russian officials have complained about the Magnitsky Act, saying it has "seriously undermined" U.S. efforts to improve relations with Russia.
The original version of the Russian legislation focused on punishing U.S. human rights violators, such as officials involved in secret prisons or guards at Guantanamo prison.
Only after amendments two weeks ago did it put the adoption issue at the forefront.
More than 650,000 children are considered orphans in Russia. The government estimates that 110,000 lived in state institutions in 2011. Government databases identify 120,000 children as candidates for adoption. Orphanages are badly overcrowded and the conditions are not good. There are 18,470 Russian families registered as potential adoptees.
Russians adopted about 7,400 children in 2011, about twice the number of Russian children adopted by families abroad. Americans are tops among that group, adopting some 70,000 children since the end of the Cold War. The number now is about 1,000 a year, many of them older children or those with special needs. All of them were unable to find Russian families.
The treatment of them in the U.S. has not been perfect. In addition to the 19 cases of fatal violence or neglect identified by the Russian Foreign Ministry, there were international headlines when a U.S. family put an unruly child on a plane alone to return to Russia. The two governments signed a Bilateral Adoption Agreement to smooth out the wrinkles. It requires the use of accredited agencies for adoptions, up to 80 hours of training for adoptive parents as well as post-adoption monitoring of children by Russian officials.
Apparently, the need to vent frustration against insults to Russian pride takes precedent over the needs of those children.
The pain is being felt most acutely by the 52 children and the families that had planned to proceed with adoptions but could not do so as of Jan. 1, when the law went into effect. Some officials reckon that as many as 15,000 Russian children are in various stages of the adoption process and will be affected.
In response to critics who rightfully condemned playing politics with children's lives — 100,000 people signed an online petition against the bill — Mr. Putin signed a decree ordering improvements in care for orphans. It eases the adoption process for Russian parents and increases monthly benefits to handicapped children and to those who adopt them.
Those are window-dressing palliatives for what is essentially a political and cynical act. Legislation that is designed to punish behavior a state believes offensive should target the offenders.
In this case, though, Russia has punished the most vulnerable members of its own society — not only orphans but also handicapped orphans and those who would try to help them.
With this extraordinary gesture, Russia hangs out its principles and priorities for all the world to see.