Russia's adoption ban exposes political rift

Russian President Putin is expected to back the parliament's adoption ban. But the move has exposed a rare split in the government, with some top officials speaking out against the ban.

Sasha D'jamoos/Family photo/AP
Alexander D'Jamoos, center, poses with his adoptive parents, Michael and Helene D'Jamoos, and his younger brother, Marc, on a family vacation in the US Virgin Islands in 2008. Alexander, who was born with no legs, grew up in a Russian orphanage and was adopted after he came to Texas to have a prosthesis attached that enabled him to walk. He is angry over new legislation passed in Moscow that bans adoptions of Russian children by Americans.

Russia's upper house of parliament today unanimously approved a ban on US citizens adopting Russian children, a highly charged move that appears to have prompted an unusual public split among government officials. 

The Dima Yakovlev bill, named after one of 19 Russian children to die due to abuse or negligence at the hands of adoptive US parents in the past two decades, now goes to the Kremlin for President Vladimir Putin’s consideration. In his only comments so far on the antiadoption measure, Mr. Putin said last week that it was "emotional but adequate," which is widely seen as an indication that he will sign it into law.

The legislation was originally framed as a tit-for-tat response to the Magnitsky Act, a US measure signed into law by President Obama earlier this month that aims to punish officials connected to the 2009 prison death of Russian whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. But the Russian legislation has been amended beyond recognition by hard-line lawmakers and now looks like a shotgun law to punish US citizens who become involved in almost any kind of non-business activity in Russia.

Many experts think that Putin may yet act as the "voice of reason" and strip the ban on adoption out of the bill before he signs it.

"This whole discussion over the adoption ban has served the purpose of shifting public attention from the corrupt Russian officials targeted under the US Magnitsky Act to the problems of orphans and the dangers they face in foreign homes," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"It's perfectly possible that Putin will ultimately adjust the adoption ban, but leave in place many of the other tough measures in this bill that haven't gotten much attention," Mr. Petrov says. Those measures include even harsher restrictions that would prevent any US passport holder from holding a leadership post in any Russian organization that is deemed by authorities to engage in politics.

The adoption ban has also become the focus of controversy and prompted a rare government split inside Russia. This week a liberal radio station leaked news of a memo by Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets warning that the proposed ban would violate Russian law and at least two treaties that Russia is party to. It would also overturn a bilateral accord on adoptions, negotiated between the United States and Russia, which came into force last month.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Education Minister Dmitry Livanov have also spoken out against the antiadoption bill. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, voiced annoyance that the government’s internal disagreements were being aired in public, but still signaled support for the measure.

"Learning about official correspondence from the media is not always pleasant," Mr. Peskov told the Kommersant FM radio station yesterday. But "it would be a mistake to think that there is staunch opposition to the bill within government. On the contrary, there are many arguments in favor of it," he said.

Many Russians believe it is a national shame that thousands of children are adopted by foreigners each year. According to a public opinion survey published this week by the state-run Public Opinion Fund, 56 percent of Russians support the proposed adoption ban, while just 21 percent oppose it.

Pavel Astakhov, the Kremlin's children's rights ombudsman and a strong supporter of the ban, said in a letter to Putin published today that Russia could simply pull out of the bilateral agreement with the US and that the move would violate no Russian laws.

Meanwhile, about 130,000 Russians have signed a petition at the website of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta asking the Kremlin to scrap the proposed ban.

In a sign that the ill will generated by the issue might snowball further, a petition posted at the White House's website, signed by over 54,000 Russians and Americans, urges Mr. Obama to expand the so-called Magnitsky List by adding the names of all the Russian lawmakers in the two chambers who voted for the adoption ban. About 7,000 signed a petition calling for Obama to add Putin's name to the list.

Over the past two decades, about 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by US families. Of those, at least 19 died due to parental abuse or neglect. Each one of those cases ignited a firestorm of public outrage in Russia and led to two suspensions of all foreign adoptions.

It also led to several efforts to tighten up Russia's once-lax foreign adoption process. Today, prospective parents are no longer able to arrange an adoption on their own, but must work through heavily regulated and fully accredited agencies, says Alyona Senkevich, a representative of Hand-in-Hand, one of fewer than 40 US-based adoption agencies still accredited to work in Russia.

"It's heartbreaking to think that we just signed the bilateral adoption agreement....  The main impact of this law (if Putin signs it) would be to strip Russian orphans of the right to be adopted abroad,” she says. “They will become the victims of political games."

Under Russian law, a child is not eligible for foreign adoption until the child has been rejected at least three times by prospective Russian adoptive parents, which usually happens for health reasons.

Albert Likhanov, president of the non-governmental Russian Children's Fund, says that the proposed ban would result in the approximately 1,000 orphans adopted each year by US families to be institutionalized instead of ending up in loving homes.

"I fully understand the wish of many Russians that our children would all be adequately cared for in Russia. But this is not the situation today, and a child cannot wait for everything to get stabilized," he says.

Mr. Likhanov said that Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, once pointed out that in 2008 alone there were 130,000 cases in Russia of violence against children and over 2,000 deaths.

"There is a crisis in our system, and this debate shows that there are people who are willing to use our orphans as political footballs ... this conflict makes clear that all is not well in own kingdom,” he says.

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