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Putin shows Russian insecurity in signing ban on US adoption of orphans

Russia's ban on US adoption of orphans is retaliation for a US law that targets human-rights abusers in Russia. Moscow's response reveals one of its greatest weaknesses, a deep-seated national sense of insecurity. Now Russians themselves must demand better for their children.

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And so Russia now has “Dima’s law,” named after an adopted Russian toddler who died when his father in Virginia left him unattended for hours in an overheated car. Each year, US citizens adopt approximately 1,000 Russian orphans, usually older children or children with special medical needs, and who are not adopted by Russians. It is these children who will pay the price for Russian officials’ indignation at the Magnitsky Act. Pending applications for adoption, numbering 52, will now be halted by the Russian law, which takes effect Jan. 1.

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America is the foreign country that takes in the largest number of Russian orphans, who number more 100,000 children in state institutions. True, this legislation will probably do less harm than appears at first glance. Americans seeking to adopt children abroad will seek other countries, and perhaps prospective adoptive parents from third countries, particularly in Europe, will take up some of the children ineligible to be adopted by Americans.

But it will inflict delays and lost opportunities for many Russian orphans to find a proper home. And if, as children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov proposes, all foreign adoptions are eventually forbidden, thousands of children will be stuck in the poorly run state system, with only 18,000 Russians now waiting to adopt a child, according to UNICEF.

Unfortunately, Russia’s response reveals one of its greatest weaknesses, a deep-seated national sense of insecurity. Russia needs the self-confidence to accept criticism when it is warranted and to even change its behavior if, after serious self-examination, it concludes that its actions require corrective action.
The anti-adoption legislation also reveals a willful blindness to the well-being of Russia’s own citizens, particularly to parentless children waiting for the day to be offered a real home with loving and caring parents.

Dima’s law punishes vulnerable orphans for political effect, and doesn’t even achieve its stated objectives. It utterly fails to impose any sanctions whatsoever on the American officials or the politicians who passed the Magnitsky Act – though it does outlaw some non-governmental organizations that receive US funding. 

And the law presents an unfortunate image of a vengeful and spiteful response to a political statement by America that would have best been replied to with a dignified argument that the Magnitsky Act is an unwarranted intrusion into Russia’s internal affairs.

I believe that Mr. Putin is actually concerned with welfare of Russian citizens. He has said he wants to improve the care of orphans, especially those with health challenges, and I hope that he can follow through on this promise. But signing this bill only makes things worse for orphans, while also harming Russia’s international reputation as a responsible actor on the world stage. Encouragingly, many Russians have expressed outrage over the law.

At this juncture, the worst thing the US could do is overreact. Indignant accusations of heartlessness and cruelty to orphans will simply make the Kremlin more stubbornly obstreperous and will potentially harm US-Russia cooperation in other areas of vital mutual interest.

It is a moment for the US to adopt a policy of diplomatic restraint and wise discretion, and for Russians themselves to demand better for their children.

Mark Nuckols is a professor of law and business at Moscow State University Higher School of Business and at the Russian Academy of National Economy.


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