After some 20,000 Russians marched through the frigid streets of downtown Moscow Sunday to protest the Dima Yakovlev Act, which bans all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens, the Kremlin was moved to offer a rare public response.
In an interview with the outspokenly independent Dozhd Internet TV station, Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted that the Kremlin cares just as much about Russian orphans, but that the protesters had failed to understand the point of the adoption ban.
"It's not just a ban, but an intention to create necessary conditions inside the country," Mr. Peskov said.
"People who express concerns about the fate of orphans are absolutely right.... We hope people who have filled the streets to speak their minds are informed about the leadership's plans to adjust the adoption process and to initiative measures to ease orphaned children's lives," he added.
But supporters of the law insist it's part of a broader plan to improve conditions in Russian orphanages, streamline the notoriously tough procedures for adoption, and increase material aid to prospective adoptive parents inside Russia.
And the Kremlin insists it is studying several programs, including one entitled "Russia Without Orphans," penned by Kremlin human rights commissioner Pavel Astakhov, who was a major lobbying force for the ban.
"The queue of Russians willing to become foster parents keeps growing, while there are fewer foreigners. The moment of truth has arrived," Mr. Astakhov told the official RIA-Novosti agency before the law was adopted last month.
"The important thing is not the response measures [to the Magnitsky Act] but the new Russian reality: Believe in yourself, rely on yourself. Support families and not businesses that exploit children," he added.
Step up incentives
Astakhov argues that all of Russia's estimated 120,000 institutionalized children could be placed in foster homes, or adopted into Russian families, if regulations were eased and material incentives stepped up.
According to a report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Russian government has made significant progress in improving conditions for the nation's approximately 700,000 orphans, about 120,000 of whom currently live in state orphanages, since Mr. Putin identified the issue as a national priority in his 2006 state-of-the-nation address.
The percentage of orphans living in orphanages dropped from 23 percent in 2006 to 16.5 percent in 2009, the report said.
In the next few months, the State Duma is expected to pass legislation to help cut red tape in adoptions, boost the pensions given to disabled orphans, and help prospective foster and adoptive parents with larger subsidies and housing assistance.
On Monday, the State Duma declined to act on an Internet petition, signed by over 130,000 Russians, calling on lawmakers to cancel the new adoption ban. Although Russian law stipulates that any petition signed by more than 100,000 people must be treated as a legislative initiative, the head of the Duma’s Constitutional Committee, Vladimir Pligin, told journalists the law lacks an enabling clause and therefore can't be carried out.
The key problem, critics argue, is that Russian authorities took firm action by enacting the ban last month, while all talk of helping orphans is relegated to a rosy but ambiguous future.
"I wish our authorities would have a different focus," says Svetlana Pronina, co-chair of Child's Right, a nationwide network of NGOs that work with children's issues.
"It's certainly worthwhile to ask why in most of Europe the proportion of orphans is no more than 0.6 percent of all children, whereas in Russia we have a stable orphan population of 2.6 percent? One could certainly support this slogan of 'Russia Without Orphans.' ... But the main thrust of what they are proposing is that families who agree to adopt a child should be materially rewarded. This is not right; adoption should not be based on material factors," she says.
"It's difficult to find a proper family for a child. This involves a lot of hard work by caring individuals, and to make it some kind of mass production scheme is completely wrongheaded," she adds.
Even some supporters of the adoption ban in principle say they're leery of the present political direction. Nina Ostanina, a Communist Party deputy of the Duma who for many years thundered against the lack of controls on foreign adoptions, says she's very worried about the new stress on easing regulations for Russians to adopt.
"I was raising the issue of foreign adoptions in the Duma for 10 years, and I think that gives me the right to say that this law was adopted in a cynical and hasty manner. It was done for political advantage, a purely speculative approach," she says.
"My forecast is that once the wave of scandal dies down, the authorities will forget about all the promises they made to orphans," she adds.