What's behind Russia's bill banning US adoptions?

The bill had originally been a smaller, tit-for-tat response to US legislation, but the Russian Duma has expanded it into a much broader anti-American measure that even Putin may not approve.

Yevgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta/AP
Police officers detain a protester near the State Duma, in Moscow on Wednesday. Protesters picketed the Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber, to protest against planned debate of an amendment that would ban Americans from adopting Russian children.

A Russian bill that had seemed initially like a tit-for-tat response to US legislation now looks to be exploding into broad legislation that bars almost any US citizen from engaging in nonbusiness activity in Russia – including the adoption of Russian children.

Russia's State Duma on Wednesday passed a bill, in key second reading, that would ban all adoptions of Russian children by US citizens, order the closure of any politically active nongovernmental organization with US funding, and block US passport holders from working in any nonprofit group that authorities deem connected with politics. The bill passed the 450-seat Duma overwhelmingly, with just 15 deputies opposed.

The now radically amended Dima Yakovlev bill, named after one of 19 Russian children who have died because of alleged negligence by American adoptive parents in the past two decades, goes far beyond the originally stated intent to respond to the US Senate's Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Obama last week.

The initial bill, which passed first reading last Friday, would have levied economic and visa sanctions against US officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses against Russians. Among the categories of Americans to be affected in the original bill were adoptive parents who abused their Russian-born children and officials involved in the extradition and prosecution of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York court last year.

Experts say that might have been a straightforward symmetrical response to the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials implicated in the 2009 prison death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other alleged individual human rights abusers.

But with the amendments loaded on this week, the bill that Duma deputies seem set to pass on third reading Friday – a prerequisite for it reaching the desk of President Vladimir Putin – casts a far wider net.

The Kremlin has not so far commented. But the proposed adoption ban has met with unexpected pushback from some Russian government departments. One of those is the Foreign Ministry, which has spent years negotiating a bilateral US-Russia adoption agreement that finally came into force last month.


The adoption ban "is not right, and I am sure that the State Duma will make the right decision in the end," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the official ITAR-Tass agency before the Duma voted. "International adoption as an institution has a full right to exist."

Others who've cautioned the Duma against making "emotional" decisions that might need to be corrected later include the speaker of the upper house of parliament, Valentina Matvienko, and Education Minister Dmitry Livanov.

Some analysts say the Duma is out in front of the Kremlin, in passing even more draconian laws than they are asked to, because deputies of the majority United Russia faction are still stung by the accusations of the protest movement that erupted at the time of Duma elections a year ago, claiming that the pro-Kremlin party won by fraud and voter coercion, and were therefore an illegitimate parliament.

"They are still offended by all the criticism, and the gibes that United Russia is 'the party of rogues and thieves'," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"They were given the task to react to the Magnitsky Act, but they started adding all sorts of amendments onto it.... I think they are doing this just out of spite, to show the opposition that they have the power, and they can do what they want. It's very likely that Putin will play 'good cop' in the end, and remove some measures, like the adoption ban, when this lands on his desk," Mr. Mukhin says.


Other experts say that the long-running political opposition to foreign adoptions is a key plank in the program of emerging Russian nationalists, and that genuine support for this measure in the Duma shouldn't be underestimated.

Russia has officially suspended adoptions several times in the past few years, usually amid the media storm that results anytime an adopted Russian child dies because of abuse or negligence at the hands of American parents.

About 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families in the past two decades, of whom a confirmed 19 have died in circumstances of parental abuse or negligence. In one case that led to a tsunami of outrage in Russia, a 7-year-old Russian boy was put on a plane to Moscow by his adoptive mother with a "to whom it may concern" note pinned to his clothes saying he was too much trouble to look after.

There are about 650,000 registered orphans in Russia, but Russian law requires that only those who cannot be adopted domestically – usually for health reasons – may be made available for foreign adoption.

"If they go ahead and ban adoptions to the US, we'll have to close down," says Galina Sigaeva, a representative of New Hope Christian Services, a US adoption agency that's specialized in Russia for almost 20 years, and has been through all the past crises and managed to retain its accreditation amid ever-tightening restrictions.

"We have assisted in the adoption of 140 children to the US, and we have kept in touch with all of them and followed their lives in America. This is our duty. All of those children had health problems, and had been rejected for adoption by Russian citizens. So what kind of gloomy future do children like this face if the Duma closes down adoptions to the US?" Ms. Sigaeva says.

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