Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters/File
Orphan children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don December 19. A bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children went to President Vladimir Putin for his signature on December 26, 2012 after winning final approval from parliament in retaliation for a U.S. law that targets Russian human rights abusers.

Putin signs antiadoption law, throwing pending adoptions into confusion

About 1,000 Russian children were adopted by US families in 2011, and around 50 such adoptions are pending.

President Vladimir Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev Act into law Friday, banning all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens as of Jan. 1 and throwing dozens of currently ongoing adoptions into confusion.

The mood among workers in the almost 40 Russia-accredited adoption agencies, which have survived repeated bouts of political tensions and ever-tightening regulations over the years, was near despair Friday.

"We have two cases of adoption in court and we're just asking ourselves the same question, what will be next?" says Lyudmila Babich, of the Cold Spring, New York-based Happy Families Center.

"We have no text of this law, nor any explanations of what's supposed to happen now. So, we're waiting," she says.

Any hope that Mr. Putin might impose some restraint upon a measure that even members of his own cabinet have criticized as possibly illegal and diplomatically disruptive were dashed Thursday when Putin explicitly endorsed the adoption ban and other tough measures against US citizens working in Russia in televised remarks.

"I see no reason not to sign the law," Putin said.

He added that he would also sign a presidential decree to improve procedures for adopting Russian orphans and abandoned children domestically, and also boost measures to help children with serious disabilities and health problems – who were previously the major pool of orphans made available for foreign adoption.

About 1,000 Russian children were adopted by US families in 2011, down from the annual average of 3,000 or so in the past decade, and only a small portion of the 120,000 Russian children who are considered eligible for adoption. Under Russian law, a child can be offered to prospective foreign parents only after having been rejected three times by Russian families.

Framed as 'selling' children

Russian nationalists argue that it's a shame for Russian children to be "sold" abroad, and several of the lawmakers who championed the Dima Yakovlev bill argued they will sponsor further efforts to ease the plight of Russia's huge numbers of institutionalized children.

Putin lent his support to the harshest critics of international adoption Thursday, by casually likening Russian children taken into US families to economic refugees.

"There are probably many places in the world where living standards are higher than ours. So what, are we going to send all our children there?" Putin said with sarcasm. "Maybe we should move there ourselves?" 

The new law is a sudden about face from Russia's previous position. Russia's foreign ministry spent years negotiating a detailed US-Russia adoption accord, which regulates virtually all aspects of the adoption process, and came into effect just last month.

"I just don't understand how they can completely change the whole system for international adoptions, suddenly, all at once like this," says Svetlana Pronina, head of Child's Right, a Russian nongovernmental group that works for children's rights. 

"It looks to me like children have become hostages to the political situation, and this is not a wise way to approach the needs of Russian children," she adds.

"How is it that our authorities were able to ratify a major agreement with the US about adoptions just a few months ago, and now they decided to abolish it? What sense is there in this?" she says.

One year's warning ignored

The law is slated to come into effect on Jan. 1, though the US-Russia bilateral accord stipulates that either side must give one year's warning before withdrawing from the deal.

The original idea of the Dima Yakovlev law was to frame a symmetrical response to the US Magnitsky Act, which targets sanctions at about 60 Russian officials allegedly involved in the 2009 prison death of whistleblowing anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

That law would have levied visa and financial penalties on alleged US human rights violators, such as CIA officials involved in "black site" secret prisons, Guantanamo prison guards as well as US adoptive parents who abused their Russian-born children.

But after a series of amendments last week, the adoption ban was put front-and-center, along with measures that may lead to the closure of any NGO that receives US funding and stiff restrictions on US passport-holders (including thousands of dual US-Russia citizens) engaging in activities deemed "political" by authorities.

Pending adoptions a question

No one is sure what will happen with the approximately 50 cases of US-Russia adoption that are currently at various stages of completion.

Pavel Astakhov, the Kremlin's ombudsman for children's rights, who has been a strong supporter of the ban, says all current adoptions will be halted and the children re-assigned.

"There are 52 such children," Mr. Astakhov told the independent Interfax agency Friday. 

 "I believe they must be adopted in Russia, with the regional governors taking personal responsibility for them," he added.

Ilya Ponomaryov, the lone Duma deputy who voted against the Dima Yakovlev bill in all three readings, says there should now be absolutely no doubt about who was behind the adoption ban from the outset.

"The Duma has no independent will, it simply does what the executive branch tells it to," Mr. Ponomaryov says. "Now it's clear that this was Putin's initiative all along." 

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