Russian orphans held hostage — again?

Not the Berlin Wall, but high enough if the Russian government decides to make it so.

I actually started to write this a few days ago, when the Russian parliament passed a bill banning any further adoptions of Russian children by Americans. But Christmas Day — which I spent with my Russian-born daughter  — seemed like a good day to finish it.

The long and short of it all is that some Russian legislators are using thousands of orphaned children as political pawns in an effort to assuage their collective wounded pride.

The thorn in the Russian paw this time is the “Magnitsky Act,” which was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Obama a few weeks ago. The bill is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who blew the whistle a few years ago on some titanic corruption taking place in the Russian government — yes, some of it is so egregious that people don’t just accept it — and paid for it with his life.

The Americans got involved by combining two bills on two different issues. First, Congress finally normalized trade relations with Russia by dumping the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a Cold War leftover that once tied trade relations to the treatment of Jews in the now-defunct Soviet Union. This was a good thing, and long overdue.

Floral Tributes

Flowers left as tribute to Magnitsky

This was linked, however, to a bill meant to punish specific people involved in the torture and death of Magnitsky by denying them access to U.S. financial institutions and freezing their assets. Hence the naming of the bill for Magnitsky, even though the trade normalization is the much larger act.

What’s the connection, you might wonder, between American protests over the treatment of a Russian lawyer and the plight of children in orphanages? There isn’t one.

It’s about nationalism and pride. Russia’s political class as a whole is incredibly thin-skinned, as it was during the Soviet days as well. Among the major powers, only the Chinese can be more petulant, and both countries react to criticism of almost any kind like moody teenagers. (If they could lock themselves in the bathroom and scream until they get what they want, they would — which, come to think of it, is kind of how we got the shameful spectacle of the Olympics going to Beijing in 2008.)

This sensitivity is heightened by the problem that many Russian politicos still don’t seem to understand the globalized and instantaneous flow of information that makes it impossible to hide things like Magnitsky’s death, and they are constantly nonplussed when journalists uncover scandals (which is the main reason it’s so risky to be a journalist in Russia). Sometimes, the Russians attempt to make symmetrical claims against the Americans on human rights, but those charges are as comical now as they were during the Cold War.

And so with no other cards to play, the Russian legislature has decided instead to shut down access to orphaned children the same way Moscow turns the taps of its gas pipeline off and on during its fits of political pique. It’s the only raw nerve they can press that gets a reaction.

Dima Yakovlev

Dima Yakovlev

In the wake of the Magnitsky Act, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, passed the “Dima Yakovlev Act,” named for a Russian child who died when his adoptive American father left him in a hot car.  This is not exactly a tidal wave of abuse and neglect: according to a report last week by the BBC, 19 deaths took place after American families adopted some 60,000 Russian children over the past 20 years.

By comparison, 1,500 orphans died in Russian adoptive families, according to the Russian prosecutor-general’s office. All this criticism would be more meaningful if Russians were willing to adopt their own children, but they’re not:  Russian figures show about 120,000 orphans listed as up for adoption in the government’s database, with only 18,470 Russian families signed up as potential adoptive parents. (And the U.S. adopters take greater numbers of handicapped and sick children, for whom services are limited, than do Russians.)

Sadly, the ban is popular out in the Russian boondocks, where old Russians think the kids who go to America are abused and endangered. As the Wall St. Journal reported this morning, 56% of Russians support a ban on foreign adoption, “especially among older, less-educated and provincial Russians” — i.e., the people least like to adopt any of these kids — with “opposition [to the ban] strong in urban areas and among the wealthy and educated.”

The Journal report adds:

Despite widely reported cases of child abuse in Russia and often poor state of medical care and education, about a third of Russians say that an adopted child would be safer in a Russian family, while only 4% think otherwise. Of those who support the ban, every fifth person was sure that Americans would be cruel to their Russian adopted children, while every tenth respondent cited the “high number” of the Russian adopted children murdered in the U.S.

The Duma is fully aware that this is nonsense, and in fact has helped to create, rather than dispel, these fears. But this isn’t about kids, it’s about politics.

There’s a wincing irony in all this, because the Magnitsky Act itself may not have been all that good an idea. I’m a skeptic about whether sanctions really work all that well anywhere, and while Congress has every right to insist on them, I’m a little itchy about legislative sanctions like the Magnitsky Act in general because they open the door to micromanaging of foreign policy from Capitol Hill. (The bill does give the President the usual trap door of being able to ignore the act’s provisions if the catch-all phrase “national security” requires it).

As a matter of diplomacy, I don’t think it’s worth the diplomatic costs to try to tailor legislation so precisely that it reaches a select group of people, especially when it’s unclear who those people are. I also doubt that venting U.S. anger through the Magnitsky Act will result in justice, because I don’t think that nipping at the heels of Russia’s elite by trying to tie the purse strings of any one group of malefactors is likely to do very much.

Predictably enough, the only effect of the Magnitsky Act so far seems to be that it has emboldened the Russians to stonewall the whole business. Yesterday, charges were dropped against the only person charged in Magnitsky’s death, probably as an extended middle finger to the Americans.

None of this is to say that I think Magnitsky’s death should be ignored. But if we’re going to make an issue of it, then we might as well go all in, and make human rights a coherent part of our diplomacy with Moscow instead of taking up causes on a case-by-case basis. We’re going to get the same reaction whether we tackle one case, or a hundred, and we might as well go wholesale instead of retail.

Still, the Russians have the absolute right to deny adoption to anyone from any country. The Americans, likewise, have the right to limit their trade with anyone they choose. Both of these realities, however, are beside the point. There’s a larger and more odious problem here, which is that the Russians are breaking an ancient rule of political conflict between civilized states:  no matter what the issue, you leave the children out of it. The Magnitsky Act might infuriate some Russians, but holding up orphans as human shields against justifiable criticism of human rights issues is not an answer and only vindicates the worst charges of Russia’s critics.

There is a glimmer of hope in all this. There are many compassionate Russians who believe that international adoption is a humane and necessary option for Russian children; I know, because I’ve worked with them. And I know that there are Russian birth mothers  who want a better life for their kids than they could have given them. (I will always be grateful to at least one I can think of.)

Apparently, there are members of the Russian leadership who agree. The New York Times reported today (in a story first broken by the Russian edition of Forbes) that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs, Olga Golodets, has warned President Putin that the ban might violate international treaties:

In her letter [to Putin], Ms. Golodets said the proposed ban, which has already been approved by the lower house of Parliament, would violate the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which took effect in 1980, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which went into force in 1990. Russia is a party to both agreements, though the United States is not. She also said such a ban would violate Russian federal law.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the president had not seen the letter [TMN note: “Hasn’t seen it.” Yeah, right.] and Mr. Peskov expressed annoyance at having the government’s internal discussions debated in public. “It is not always pleasant to learn about official correspondence from the media,” he told Russian news agencies.

Lavrov: Not amused by the Duma’s antics?

What’s especially encouraging about this newest development is that it suggests a deeper split within the Kremlin about the political use of Russia’s orphaned children, as the Times reports:

From the outset, the proposed ban has divided officials at the highest levels of the Russian government. Several senior officials, including the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who had a personal hand in negotiating the adoption agreement with the United States, have spoken out against it.

Lavrov, who’s been butting heads with the Americans over Syria and can hardly be accused of being some kind of pro-Western chump, was clearly annoyed with this whole mess. “If you think that the State Duma is not independent in its actions,” he snapped when answering a question about this mess a few days ago, “you are wrong. They really have an opinion, which has prevailed now. Don’t ask why.”

Good for him. Russian children in need of families can only hope that most of the Russian leadership agrees with him.

The upper chamber of the Russian legislature concurred this morning with the bill, so now it goes to the Russian President. Whether Putin will sign it is still up in the air. He’s been backing it in public, which is what you’d expect from a politician who made his bones on drumming up Russian nationalism. But let’s see just how much pain he’s willing to inflict on Russia’s orphans for what are clearly petty and symbolic political reasons, and hope instead that his instincts as a father overcome the temptations of political expediency.

UPDATE 27 DEC 2012: Putin has now said he’ll sign the bill. I suppose it was pure optimism to assume he wouldn’t, especially surrounded by people like the grandstanding opportunist Pavel Astakhov, about whom I’ve written before. Astakhov said today that the current 46 adoptions already in process will be stopped, and that “there is no need to go out and make a tragedy out of it.”

Too late, Mr. Astakhov, it’s already a tragedy. But perhaps you might spend the rest of the winter traveling your own country and explaining to 180,000 of your own children how the delicate egos of a group of men in Moscow has now foreclosed hope of a better life for any of them — and without taking TV cameras with you.

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One comment

  1. That was predictable in a general sense as was the poor response to Jackson-Vanik, which resulted in zero Jewish immigration.
    They’re a hard case, if of course with nuclear weapons, children are always “all in,” at least to a significant extent even in limited nuclear strikes.
    Nixon opposed Jackson-Vanik, although some think in the end he was too accomodating to what is, per detente legitimizing the Soviet state, as opposed to Reagan, if of course per Able Archer and Andropov’s mentality, that could have ended badly too.