MALAKHOVKA, RUSSIA — Eight-month-old Sasha is a lively boy with bright blue eyes and - at least when he gets a bit of attention - a big sunny smile.
Lying on his belly in a playpen with seven other babies in the Lubertsy Baby House, he is blissfully unaware that bureaucrats are juggling with his destiny.
"Sasha has excellent chances of being adopted, as do many of the children here," says Olga Struchkova, director of the Baby House, some 20 miles from Moscow. "But the system ... has always been too bogged down in red tape, and now it has almost ground to a halt," she says.
One of President Vladimir Putin's first acts after being elected in March was to sign a decree outlawing intermediaries in the adoption process, immobilizing at a single stroke some 150 agencies from the US alone who've been helping to pair foreigners with Russian babies.
Outside agents must now register officially with the Russian government, and prove their good intentions with a stiff battery of documentation - a reform many professionals say is necessary and overdue. But they chafe at the complex paperwork and time-scale involved. Registration will take as long as three months, and the process won't be opened until July at the earliest.
"Registration requirement is a good thing if it will eliminate a lot of the less-experienced and perhaps less ethical agencies who have been working in Russia," says Sara Harris, a representative of the North Carolina-based Christian World Adoption agency, which has handled about 50 Russian adoptions annually for the past six years. "But for the moment there's an enormous amount of disruption. Many adoptions have been frozen in the pipeline because none of us are being allowed to work."
Ms. Harris, an American who married a Russian citizen in 1966 and has lived in Moscow ever since, believes the Putin government has the best intentions. "There are very strict rules governing adoption in the US, and it's not unreasonable for Russia to tighten its own requirements," she says. "The system has been riddled with inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and corruption, all of which needs to be cleaned up.
"I do not believe these new measures are aimed against foreigners who want to adopt Russian children," she says.
The numbers of American couples seeking to adopt in Russia has been growing steadily since the practice became legal here after 1992. More than two-thirds of the 6,200 Russian children adopted by foreigners last year went to the United States.
About 620,000 children languish in Russian orphanages, and experts say the numbers are growing due to post-Soviet economic deprivation and a breakdown of social and family values.
About 80,000 are currently listed on the national registry of children available for adoption. But adoption is not a developed tradition in this country. Last year, Russians adopted about 7,000 kids, just slightly more than the numbers taken by foreigners.
Due to the language barrier and the labyrinthine Russian bureaucracy, a savvy middleman - often an American of Russian descent - is usually called in to help handle the arrangements for foreigners trying to adopt a Russian baby. Experts say the process typically costs about $20,000, some of which may be spent on gifts for the orphanage and to win the favor of local judges and officials.
Russian nationalists have accused outside middlemen of manipulating the system and using their clients' wealth to jump waiting lists and secure the healthiest babies. By banning foreign agencies until registration takes place, the Putin government has triggered worries that it may be preparing to crack down on foreign adoptions.
"Our children should stay in Russia," says Viktor Kozin, a parliamentary spokesman for the ultranationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which wants to ban foreign adoptions altogether. "Rich Americans want to buy our babies and turn them against Russia. That can't be allowed."
At the Lubertsy Baby House, home to 105 infants in the village of Malakhovka, Ms. Struchkova shakes her head. "That's a very influential point of view in some circles, but it's a minority one," she says. "To me it's perfectly obvious that the most unpatriotic thing is to leave a Russian baby without parents."
According to Harris and others, the stronger regulations decreed by President Putin might have the effect of stealing the nationalists' thunder. One of the new rules will require adoptive parents to register their baby with the Russian consulate in their country, to keep open its right to Russian citizenship until the age of 18. Another orders parents to submit regular progress reports on the child for four years after the adoption.
"If they work properly, the new regulations will weaken political pressure by applying the kind of tough standards the critics have been calling for," Harris says. "In the long run, the environment can be improved."
Since adoption is supposed to be free of charge under Russian law, no one seems very willing to talk about the economic contribution being made by prospective foreign parents to keep the rickety, underfunded Russian orphanage system alive. But it may be considerable.
Struchkova complains the Russian government is far behind on the 32 rubles (about $1.15) that is supposed to be paid for each child's daily upkeep. "My staff and I routinely go for months without our salaries," she says. "The authorities are simply not living up to their responsibilities."
She turns cautious when asked about the expensive fax machine and computer sitting on her office desk, and the shipment of new children's furniture arriving at the back door of the orphanage for the young ones, all under 4.
"We get food, clothing, and other things from friends and sponsors," she says. "There's no law against humanitarian aid, you know."
Ms. Harris says the mystery is easily solved. "As an American adoption agency working in Russia ... we encourage parents to donate about $1,000 to the orphanage as a way of saying thanks and helping the children who remain behind," she says. "Our agency always makes sure it is given in the form of necessities. We never hand over cash."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society