Well, it finally happened.
After threatening to do so for months, the lower house of Russia’s parliament voted today to ban American parents from adopting Russian children.
Although many Russians are angry about the deaths of adopted children in America, the ban is largely the result of wider tensions with America over human rights and free trade.
The legislation will also make it a crime for Russians to facilitate adoptions by U.S. citizens. It is named in honor of Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in 2008 when his adoptive American father left him in a locked car for nine hours.
Basing its judgement on a handful of high-profile cases like Yakovlev’s, the Russian government claims that American parents routinely abuse adopted Russian children, and the U.S. government does little to stop them.
“The state has a responsibility to protect children from danger and from situations that might expose them to danger,” a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin tells RIA Novosti, Russia’s state news agency.
But it’s not clear if Putin will actually sign the bill, which has been dubbed the “Scoundrel’s Law” on Russian social media sites.
The Moscow Times reports 100,000 Russians have signed an online petition urging Putin to reject the legislation. Putin, who had previously been a harsh critic of adoptive parents in the U.S., appears to be backtracking somewhat. He now calls most adoptive American parents “honest and decent people,” while still criticizing the U.S. government for not allowing Russian officials to monitor the trials of allegedly abusive parents in America.
Putin also says a bilateral agreement on adoption signed by Russia and the U.S. in November may make it illegal for Russia to ban adoption by Americans without a year’s notice. The agreement was designed in part to ease Russian concerns about the treatment of children in the U.S.
“We have an agreement with the State Department,” Putin tells The Moscow Times. “I need to look at it. This is not an idle inquiry.”
According to Russia Today, 420 of 450 lower house members voted in favor of the ban. Seven voted against it, one abstained.
There’s a strong undertone of nationalism in the controversy over adoption. Pavel Astakhov, a celebrity lawyer and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, has been particularly outspoken on the issue.
“It is shameful to export children,” he said at a recent press conference. “Taking a decision to ban foreign adoption, we must acknowledge that it’s about time we stopped relying on foreigners to save our children. There should be a greater effort on the part of state and society to ensure Russian orphans a decent life and promising future [in Russia].”
Americans have adopted over 45,000 Russian children since 1999 — 19 of whom have died, according to Sky News. Over a similar time period, more than 1,500 Russian children have died after being adopted by families in their own country. There are now around 83,000 children living permanently in Russian orphanages, according to The Washington Post, as well as 200,000 whose parents have temporarily given up custody.
Children: the new weapon of geopolitics
The adoption ban is the latest salvo in an ongoing political chess game between Russia and the U.S. — a game in which, critics say, orphans are increasingly becoming the pawns.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Congress passed a law repealing Cold War-era restrictions on trade with Russia. However, over the objections of business leaders and President Obama, Congress paired the bill with another piece of legislation, the Magnitsky Act, which criticized Russia for the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a corruption-fighting lawyer. Despite his reservations, Obama ultimately signed the bill.
The next day, Russia voted to ban the import of U.S. beef — although the Russian government says the timing was coincidental — the first in a series of reprisals contained in a bill known unofficially in Russia as the “Anti-Magnitsky Act.” The legislation bans American officials associated with our prison at Guantanamo Bay from traveling to Russia, among other measures. The adoption ban is actually an amendment to that bill.
In an e-mail to Latitude News, a press spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. said one of the primary causes of the proposed adoption ban was the Magnitsky Act.
If Putin signs the bill, its provisions — including the adoption ban — will go into effect on January 1, 2013.
That would be “tragic,” according to Lauren Koch, director of communications of the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington D.C.
“The most dire consequences of this ban,” she argues, “would be thousands of Russian children — who could find loving homes in the U.S. — languishing in institutions in Russia until they age out of the system and presumably end up on the street.”
“Unfortunately, at this point,” she continues, “the Russians are potentially going to take this small number of child abuse cases and punish children who desperately need a family, but aren’t finding one in their own country.”