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.

Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters
Children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Dec. 19. Russian President Vladimir Putin today signed a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children in retaliation for a US law that targets Russian human rights abusers. Op-ed contributor Mark Nuckols writes: 'America is the foreign country that takes in the largest number of Russian orphans.'

Russian President Vladimir Putin today signed legislation that ban Americans from adopting Russian children. It’s a move that reveals Russia’s deep insecurities – and worse, makes children a pawn in a political dispute.

The Duma, or lower house of parliament, which overwhelmingly passed the legislation, has for years held loud and anger-filled hearings into the alleged mistreatment of Russian orphans by their adoptive American parents. The political street theater has usually been nothing more than a means of expressing indignation at America’s occasional failings to protect adopted children and as a way to distract the public from Russia’s poor record with its woefully neglected orphanages.

This time, the motivation is a fervent desire to retaliate against the US for the recent passage and enactment of the Magnitsky Act. The new law requires the US secretary of State to compile a list of Russian officials it believes are complicit in the 2009 death of Moscow anti-corruption lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who died under suspicious circumstances while in jail, and of others involved in gross human rights violations.

Under the Magnitsky law, Russian officials on the list will be denied visas to the US, and their assets in US financial institutions will be frozen. The Kremlin literally hasn’t known how to effectively respond and its instinctive and reflexive responses to Washington are likely to be both ineffective and to exacerbate its problems.  

First, Russian authorities decided to ban the import of American beef and pork because of a feed additive that Russian regulators have somehow suddenly discovered is allegedly unsafe for Russian consumers. The exclusion from the Russian market of American meat exports will only cause US exporters to ship these products to the next most available export market. This measure will cost US producers a few million dollars a year at most, while also increasing costs for Russian consumers, which is hardly an impressive retaliatory measure designed to shock and awe.

The Duma discussed the creation of various “blacklists” of US  officials and other citizens who will be denied visas and whose Russian bank accounts will be frozen. The proposals were met with widespread ridicule, and merely underlined the obvious fact that most Americans don’t think of Russia as either the safe haven of choice for their savings or a particularly desirable place for a second home. The measure merely provided new fodder for humorists bent on mocking Russia’s officialdom. Nonetheless, the just signed legislation creates such a blacklist, notwithstanding its obvious ineffectiveness.

The best thing Russian authorities could have done would have been to vigorously investigate the circumstances of Magnitsky’s death and to bring any guilty parties to justice. Perversely, they may now resist this course of action because of the perception that it was done in response to American legislation.

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.

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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