The Kremlin appeared to backtrack Thursday, just a little bit, on a controversial new law banning all US adoptions of Russian orphans that has triggered stormy public opposition and rare open criticism from members of Vladimir Putin's own government.
A brief announcement by Mr. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov Thursday said that the bilateral US-Russia adoption agreement that came into force two months ago will continue to operate until next January.
"The agreement is in force at the moment," Mr. Peskov was quoted as saying by the official RIA-Novosti agency. "It will be in force over the course of the year."
That statement offers a glimmer of hope for the between 50 and 100 US-Russia adoptions that are in various stages of completion and had seemed doom by the angry rhetoric that accompanied the passage of the Dima Yakovlev Act last month by Russia's State Duma and Putin's vocal support for the immediate prohibition on US adoptions that it stipulated.
Until today Russian authorities have said the adoption ban, signed into law last month by Putin, was to take effect on Jan. 1. Russia's Foreign Ministry delivered a note to that effect to the US State Department last week, and US spokeswoman Victoria Nuland this week acknowledged its receipt.
Russian opposition leaders have planned a rally in Moscow this Sunday, which is expected to draw up to 20,000 people, to protest against the ban. Many argue that it is a cruel punishment that chiefly targets Russian orphans in retaliation for the US Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions against Russian officials deemed to have committed serious human rights violations.
But no one seems quite certain whether Peskov's announcement spells a breathing space for active adoptions to continue, or whether he was simply acknowledging that the US-Russia accord stipulates that each party must give one year's notice before withdrawing from the deal.
"I can't quite figure out what this means," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin strategist and close adviser to Putin.
"It seems possible that what Peskov meant was just don't want to formally violate the bilateral agreement, but that in practice adoptions will be halted.... It's possible that this is just a diplomatic smile, to say we're abiding by the accord, but Russian courts will not allow any adoption cases to go forward. We just have to see how that plays out," he says.
Workers at many of the almost 40 accredited US-based adoption agencies in Moscow said Thursday that they have no idea what is going on.
"All the information we get is contradictory. We've been in the process of laying off our staff here. In Russian regions, officials have stopped going forward with all procedures since the law came into effect [last week]," she says. "I feel so sorry for the children who will be left behind."
Under Russian law, a child must be rejected three times for adoption by Russian families before he or she can be made available for foreign adoption. In practice, that has meant that mainly disabled and special-needs children have found new families abroad. Child-care professionals worry that many of those children now face the bleak prospect of lifetime institutionalization in Russia.
One Duma deputy of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Robert Schlegel, has introduced an amendment to the Dima Yakovlev Act that would exempt the nearly 45,000 disabled Russian orphans from the ban. His amendment notes that a total ban on US adoptions "means that some children with disabilities may not be able to find a foster home and will not receive adequate medical care" in Russia, according to the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant.
The leadership of the United Russia party has only said that it will "consider" the amendment, the paper said.