News Column

Adoption Law Seen as Intensifying Opposite Trends in Russian Society

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Text of report by Russian political commentary website Politkom.ru on 24 December

[Article by Tatyana Stanovaya, director of a research department of the Center for Political Strategy: "Orphans Law: Ministers and the Opposition Against the State Duma"]

On 19 December the State Duma gave a bill which is positioned by the authorities as Russia's response to the Magnitsky Act signed by the US president, and which has in the press and on the Internet acquired the adjectives "cannibalistic" and "sordid," its second, key, reading. On 21 December the bill was given its third, final, reading. Providing for a total ban on the adoption of Russian orphaned children by American citizens, the bill has given rise to an unprecedented wave of protest, not only consolidating against the law the opposition but also provoking a split within the authorities. The bill was opposed by many members of the government, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who reports to the president.

On 14 December, the day that US President Barack Obama signed the act abolishing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and adopting the Magnitsky Act, the State Duma gave the "retaliatory action" its first reading. The bill "Action Against Persons Party to a Violation of the Rights of RF Citizens" was submitted to the State Duma back in 2011 as an action in response to the Magnitsky Act which was being prepared in the United States. It imposed a ban on Russian entry and the attachment of the accounts in Russian banks of foreigners who have caused property damage and mental anguish to RF citizens abroad. "Defense baron" Vitkor Bout, who has been found guilty of illicit arms trading, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who has been found guilty of a conspiracy aimed at smuggling narcotics, and Aleksandr Kashin were mentioned in the explanatory note as examples of violations of the rights of Russian citizens. The latter was hit by the vehicle of Douglas Kent, US consul general in the Far East, the proceedings against whom were quashed on account of immunity. True, this event occurred back in 1998--so that so old a case even was employed to justify the need for the bill's adoption.

But by its second reading the bill had been reinforced by fundamentally significant new amendments. It is contemplated barring Russians with American citizenship from being a member or executive of a nonprofit engaging in political activity (and if such nonprofits are financed from the United States, their activity must be suspended--the concept of "political activity" may be interpreted very broadly, what is more), terminating the activity of American child-adoption agencies, and banning the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens. It is the latter amendment made by Yekaterina Lakhova (United Russia) and Yelena Afanasyeva (LDPR) that has had unprecedented repercussions. According to the statistics, the majority of children who were adopted by foreign citizens in 2011 were handed over to be fostered by US citizens (956 persons), and the United States was the record-settter in terms of the number of adopted Russian handicapped children also. The United States has in the past 20 years adopted 60,000 Russian children, this figure having been given out this year by the US Embassy. Nineteen children have in this time died at the hands of Americans, whereas in the Russian Federation 1,500 children have been casualties at the hands of their adopters, Deputy Dmitriy Gudkov, citing data of the Ministry of Education and Science, said.

The protest against the bill has created a unique situation. First, this appears to be a re-run of the December 2011 protest, but at a different level. This being when the most diverse political forces, but, most importantly, society from below, on its own initiative, rebelled against the falsifications at the elections for members of the State Duma. Now the target of the protest is a "children's law," which leaves practically no one indifferent: this is precisely the occasion when a problem proves extremely sensitive from the moral, ethical, not the legal, perspective. There has been a division even in so conservative and hierarchical a structure as the ROC. On the one hand Archpriest Dmitriy Smirnov, head of the synodal Department for Interaction With the Armed Forces and the Law- Enforcement Authorities , came out in support of the ban: "We can't tarry while dozens of Russian children are being killed," he explained. "This attitude of the Americans toward Russians has been fostered by propaganda, this is their mentality, there's nothing that can be done about this," he hastened to acknowledge before the news conference at which Vladimir Putin, specifically, spoke very flatteringly about the Americans themselves who adopt Russian orphans. Putin made it clear that the bill is not directed against them and that the majority of them are conscientiously honoring their commitments. The bill was supported also by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the synodal Department for Interaction of the Church and Society, who said that foreign adoption creates a risk of the children falling away from Orthodoxy.

On the other, Panteleimon, bishop of Smolensk and Vyazma and chairman of the synodal Department for Ecclesiastical Charity and Social Ministry, said that a law is needed which makes it possible to decide in each specific case what is more important for the child and guards against the adoption of decisions concerning the children "based on the political situation." "It is necessary when adopting such a law to proceed not from shocking stories and not from the rules of diplomacy and symmetrical or asymmetrical responses but from the interests of the children. Of course, there are dangers in overseas adoption, of which we are all aware, there are definite problems, but we need to resolve them in normal fashion, not make hasty decisions," the ROC representative added. The bishop believes that all laws enacted in the state "should proceed from people's interests" and that "even the prestige of the state may be sacrificed" for this.

Novaya Gazeta, meanwhile, has managed to collect 100,000 signatures, which should be sufficient to sponsor a bill banning the adopted provision. And although high-volume protest demonstrations are not an issue as yet, literally the entire cultural and journalistic elite of Russia is against the Duma initiative.

Second, the split within Russian power has assumed a unique nature--under conditions where, moreover, the bill has officially been initiated by deputies, but it is clear that the Kremlin is behind it, and it could not have failed to have been preliminarily approved by the president (the speed of its adoption also points to this theory). Observers are used to a counterpoise of the State Duma and the government and disputes between the government and the Kremlin and also to disagreements within the cabinet itself. But on this occasion the split has been exceptional: the Duma initiative was opposed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has always been extremely politically correct in regard to foreign-policy affairs. Lavrov says that "this is wrong, and I am confident that the State Duma will ultimately adopt a balanced decision." A Kommersant source in the RF Foreign Ministry explained that the minister was speaking not so much about the State Duma initiative as about the institution of adoption as a whole: "This is an inalienable part of international law and the humanitarian life of all countries. It makes no sense to ban it (adoption--Kommersant), it needs to be turned into a civilized channel. Specially since Russia is stepping up efforts here with its partners, including the United States." Kommersant's source pointed out that it was the Foreign Ministry (and the minister personally) that participated actively in the drafting of the agreement, signed in the United States, which "for the first time enabled the Russian Federation to actually track the fortunes of Russian children adopted by Americans" and required the US authorities to make available at RF request all necessary information and access to the children. A negative side-effect, though, Kommersant's source says, could be a "surge of criminal arrangements" in this sphere.

In addition, the bill was opposed by Education Minister Dmitriy Livanov (for which he was rebuked by Yekaterina Lakhova for sticking his oar in), Olga Golodets, deputy premier for social issues, Mikhail Abyzov, minister for Open Government, and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. A contradictory position was adopted by Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Human Rights Council. He observed that "the United States took an unabashedly unfriendly step," but Russia could with such amendments (concerning a ban on adoption) lose the moral advantage. "Linking this with ailing Russian children--I consider this simply unethical. The Russian response should be symmetrical," Interfax quotes Fedotov. But then Fedotov changed his position, calling in question the institution of the international adoption of Russian orphaned children as a whole. He proposed the imposition of a total ban on the adoption of children by foreigners. Such maneuvers of Fedotov could have to do with the split of the council in two--40 of its members signed a statement of the Human Rights Council condemning the ban on adoption, 20 members, an alternative text strongly criticizing the situation involving little Russians adopted by Americans (one member of the Human Rights Council, Vladimir Ryakhovskiy, attorney and Protestant figure, signed both documents here). In this situation Fedotov maneuvered between the Kremlin and the council majority critical of the position of the authorities--but none too successfully.

Finally, the position of Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev was extremely weak politically. He ignored the bill itself, but charged United Russia with drawing up a party draft on a resolution of the problems of orphans and deemed international adoption Russia's "shame". Putin subsequently fully agreed with Medvedev.

Third, the authorities' public stance on this issue would appear extremely vulnerable, for several reasons, what is more. Putin's position seems indistinct and poorly worded. Just two clear signals may ultimately be distinguished: Putin supports the initiative in spirit, but does not as yet know whether he supports it "in the letter" since he has allegedly not yet seen the text of the law. The head of state says that the operation of the Russo-American adoption agreement has to be analyzed and the wording of the deputies' initiative to be closely scrutinized before a decision on the signing of the document or otherwise is made.

But not everything is certain even with the support for the bill "in spirit". In his responses (and the subject of the "children's law" was raised eight times) Putin furnished two mutually contradictory systems of arguments for the adoption of the law, from which it is unclear whether this is a response to the Magnitsky Act or to the non-functioning agreement on the adoption of Russian children. Putin said that the "children's law" is "the response of members of the State Duma to the position of the American authorities," which, the president says, amounts to the fact that "American justice is not responding and is absolving of criminal liability people who have patently committed a crime against a child." Putin reiterated several times in the course of the news conference that Russian observers are being barred from the courts, the agreement is not working since Russians' access is ultimately regulated by legislation of the states, and the position of the State Department is becoming irrelevant. "They acted dumb," the president summed up, believing that the United States is deliberately "taking Russia for a ride." But at the same news conference he spoke also about the Magnitsky Act as an anti-Russian law. Recalling the secret CIA prisons and torture, Putin angrily said: "And they are still pointing out to us that we have some problems (with the death of Magnitskiy). Well, thank you, we know. But adopting on this basis some anti-Russian acts--this is an outrage that our side has done nothing to provoke," he said, adding here, not changing the subject, "this is an emotional response of the State Duma, but appropriate, I believe." So this is, after all, a response to the Magnitsky Act. Putin effectually supported the amendment on the ban on adoption, which drastically reduces (evidently does away with) the possibilities for maneuver in the signing of the law.

In this case this is not of fundamental importance. The main thing in the adoption of the "children's law" is the attempt to make a retaliatory anti-American gesture, showing his disagreement with the "anti-Russian" vector of the White House. And it is not a matter here only of the Magnitsky List but of a set of problems as a whole: even the adoption agreement itself appeared as a consequence of Russia's intentions to find "weak spots" of the United States in the rights sphere. For in requiring the United States to sign this agreement Russia was de facto attempting to obtain indirect acknowledgment of US liability for disregard of the rights of Russian orphans. Now, though, it turns out that the Kremlin is no longer comfortable even with the agreement recently pushed through by Moscow.

From the practical side there are many questions here as well. For example, it is unclear why Russian observers are being barred from American courts when all the legal proceedings there are of an open nature. A source in the Foreign Ministry told Kommersant that Russia's consular services simply lacked the money for the regular and thorough tracking of the fortunes of Russian orphans in the United States. It is unclear what now will happen to the children who are in the final phase of adoption: Vladimir Putin was unable to answer this question at his news conference.

In an even more vulnerable position (practically at the critical level) are the members of the State Duma, who voted practically en bloc for the adoption of the law. Only four voted "against" in the second reading. In other words, this is political consensus of all the parliamentary factions, which never before in Russian history has had such enormous repercussions with the response to the bill in the information field. Consequently, the adoption of the bill has resembled an act of State Duma self-humiliation. The situation was compounded also by the fact that Deputy Vyacheslav Osipov, who, it was already known, had passed away that day, voted "for" the bill (and 30 times that day altogether). There were simultaneously rumors of United Russia members being coerced into support for the "children's law": Public Post says that Deputy Aleksandr Sidyakin, author of the infamous amendments to the nonprofits law, abstained. The publication says that Sidyakin, who simply did not hit the button, was ordered to sign a statement that the button "broke" or a statement on withdrawal from the faction. He refused to sign a statement on the "failure" and could in the very near future be resigning. Sidyakin, a Public Post source says, was about to make a career in the Duma through the nonprofits law, but was not prepared to do so at the expense of children. Nor was the document supported by opera singer Mariya Maksakova-Igenbergs, who frequently performs abroad.

The voting model differed little, though, from other similar occasions (during passage through the Duma of the laws on demonstrations, foreign agents, high treason, and others), but the difference consists of the wider public repercussions and the possible negative consequences for the deputies, who (theoretically for the time being) could become personae non gratae for the West.

We now have a paradoxical situation, whereby a political leader relying, as he believes, on the support of the majority on this issue is attempting to earn political capital while devaluing even more than earlier the authority of the legislative branch of power in the eyes of the most active and politically capable part of Russian society. At the same time, on the other hand, a more serious demarcation than a year ago has occurred in the elites--we are now talking about a "children's" problem, which is being perceived even more emotionally than the ballot-rigging. Power has been patently confused--it hardly expected this reaction--but it sees a way out of the situation on the path of escalation of the conflict. Following Vladimir Putin's news conference, regime propaganda in support of the bill has been stepped up, but new symbolic characters are joining in the protests (Andrey Makarevich sent Putin a letter against the ban on adoption, omitting to call the president "dear" here). The opposition is demanding that the deputies who voted for the bill be put on the Magnitskiy List, which is evoking an extremely nervous reaction in the potential persons involved (Vyacheslav Nikonov even emotionally mentioned that the impact of such an action could be compared with a severance of diplomatic relations). It would appear that the confrontation will persist and even intensify, which could result both in a further complication of relations with the West and in an intensification of opposed trends within the country--an anti-Western and anti-liberal reaction on the one hand and a rejection of the policy of the authorities on the part of the active strata of society on the other.

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