Putin’s Baby Crime

To the many crimes of President Vladimir Putin, a new one was added last month: kicking babies, sweet, innocent, plump babies — out of sheer wickedness.  This crime was discussed ad nauseam, until it became a meme which was summed up by the NY Times’ own Thomas Friedman: “When recently confronted with his regime’s bad behavior, [Putin’s] first instinct was to block American parents from adopting Russian orphans, even though so many of them badly need homes.” Surprisingly, in Russia the voices against the new ban are even more shrill. At recent press conference, no less than eight different Russian journalists badgered President Putin on this one topic, each offering little more than loaded insinuations disguised as questions. The “White” opposition marched in force against the “Scoundrels” (as they describe the supporters of the ban) and compared Putin to King Herod.

Constantine Eggert, a leading anti-Putin voice in the oligarch-owned Kommersant daily, mixed Dickens treacle with rat poison to bewail the misfortune of the Russian orphans who have been deprived of their chance to grow strong and healthy beneath the splendor of the Stars and Stripes: “Perhaps because of the ban just one sweet kiddy will never read Winnie the Pooh, will not blow out candles on his birthday cake, will not proceed to school and afterwards to a college accompanied by his applauding new family in Texas or California… His fate will forever darken the conscience of the Duma (Parliament) Members and of the President who deprived him of his chance”.

This was to be expected from Russian mainstream media, as it is predominantly oligarch-owned and pro-Western. But the great majority of ordinary Russians (76%) support the new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, according to an independent poll by the US-funded WCIOM. The opposition Communist Party also voted for the new law. The well-known liberal democrat and feminist Maria Arbatova, an ex-MP and writer, much involved with orphanages and adoption, wondered aloud why the opposition was so enraged by the ban, and suggested that it was for tactical reasons: “They need fuel for their protests. Pussy Riot is old hat; these orphans are fresh fodder!” Radical poet, and leader of the proscribed NBP party, Eduard Limonov also supported the ban, and scoffed at the opposition for defending US interests rather than Russian children.

It’s not that Russians have suddenly discovered that adoption into the US is bad for children. While the timing of the ban was admittedly affected by politics, this ban had been impatiently waiting in the wings for some time. Before considering the grounds for such a pointed law, let us dispose of this issue of timing. The ban is little more than a rider to a much larger package crafted by the Duma with the intention of signalling to America Russia’s displeasure of something called the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act is a particularly troublesome piece of American legislature that allows the US to seize, freeze and confiscate the assets of Russian citizens if their names are placed on a secret list. The stated objective behind this American law is to harass the people who may have been responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky. Magnitsky, who had represented a US fund, was arrested for alleged tax evasion and died in jail under suspicious circumstances. The Duma did not create retaliatory laws to protect a couple of prison guards and an investigator or two who fall within the stated objective. The issue is much larger: every Russian citizen is under the power of this secret Magnitsky panel and their secret Magnitsky list.

The defense of human rights has been used as a pretext for sinister agendas by many governments throughout history. The US is particularly generous with their efforts to defend human rights around the world, and the Magnitsky Act can be used to arrest and rob any Russian, anywhere. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, or rather Ivan, Sergey and Vladimir might be declared an offender against the US concept of human rights and lose his property, thanks to this US law. The citizens of Russia have good reason to be concerned, as they have legally invested at least 500 billion dollars of their assets in Western banks. The West had strongly encouraged this Russian transfer of wealth into Western banks and properties, possibly as a way to control Russian politics. Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said: “Since $500 billion owned by Russia’s so-called elite is held in our banks, you should first understand whose elite it is!” The US Magnitsky Act created the legal machinery to seize the assets of Russia’s decision makers without even the semblance of a legal or democratic process. Just as the US President is empowered to execute any person on the face of earth by the power of his omnipresent drones, so may he add any Russian name to the secret Magnitsky list.

Worried Russian leaders immediately prepared a whole package of measures to counteract the Magnitsky Act. They created their own verision of the Magnitsky Act, which forbids entry to and allows the state to seize the assets of any American offender of human rights. Such a law could be used against the American DEA agents who took custody of Viktor Bout, or against the American policemen who mistreated the Occupy demonstrators, or even against the American officals who enforce the Magnitsky Act. This law, however, was a paper tiger. US-Russia relations are far from symmetrical, and very few Americans own any assets in Russia or even visit Russia.

So the Russians added some teeth to their anti-Magnitsky package: they took steps to reign-in US-supported NGOs, and notably they forbade American citizens to lead or be members of Russian NGOs that have political agendas. Support for this reform measure had already been building for years: Russia – like most countries – dislikes the openly political meddlings of these US State Department-financed NGOs and considers them a source of foreign intrigue. Some time ago the Russian legislature demanded that the leaders of foreign NGOs register as foreign agents (as is done in the US), but unfortunately this law has been totally ignored by the NGOs, and the Russian Department of Justice preferred to look other way.

Looking for an additional way to express their displeasure with the Magnitsky Act, Russian politicians co-opted a rider – a proposition long lobbied-for by veteran Duma Member Katherine Lakhova, professional pediatrician and head of the Duma’s Women, Children and Family Committee. Mrs Lakhova had for years fought her lonely crusade against foreign adoptions, with very little result, until last December when her addendum was abruptly adopted by the Duma.

Foreign adoption in Russia is a leftover from Yeltsin’s era. In Soviet days, orphans were taken care by the state system; there was simply no question of passing them abroad. In fact, it was much more common for foreign children to be brought into Russia, for example the “Spanish Kids”, the orphaned children of Spanish anti-fascist fighters killed by Franco in the 1930’s. In the 1990’s, after the collapse of the USSR, with millions out of work and others busy stripping and selling whatever could be sold for cash, some clever entrepreneurs discovered an as-yet-untapped resource: children. There is a strong and growing demand for children by childless couples, by gay and single citizens – and, sad to say, by the ever-present pedophile rings and the burgeoning transplant industry. The market was willing to pay over $100,000 per child – a fortune in Yeltsin’s Russia. Officials were corrupted, doctors issued false certificates, and Russian children were trafficked abroad.

One case to consider was that of Masha Allen, or the “DisneyWorld Girl”, as she was called by the US media. She was five years old in 1998 when she was shipped from her native Russia to come live with 41-year-old Matthew Mancuso, a single American millionaire and a rabid pedophile. “He legally adopted her from a Russian orphanage and brought her to his home in the small western Pennsylvania hamlet of Plum. Over the next five years, Mancuso sexually abused and exploited Masha, videotaping and photographing her in various stages of abuse, and posting the images on the Internet to share with others members of an online community of paedophiles and child pornography fans” – wrote Julian Assange about the case. She was rescued in 2003 by the FBI, and her abuser languishes in jail. The case became notorious, however, because the people responsible for allowing such an adoption to happen – in Russia and in the US – were never prosecuted or punished.

The recent and traumatic case of Dima Yakovlev, whose American adopted name was Chase Harrison, provided the name for Mme Lakhova’s rider; in fact, the whole package has become known as Dima’s Law. Dima Yakovlev died of heatstroke after his adoptive father left him in a parked car for nine hours. Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer Prize for his story on the case. Russians are particularly horrified that the negligent father remains unpunished by US courts. The tragedy began in Russia when little Dima was forcibly separated from his grandmother and sister by bribed officials, and his health certificate faked.

Both Maria Arbatova and Catherine Lakhova cite many similar, dreadful cases: children exported for the organ trade; children who vanished after being adopted by bogus parents; children adopted to be re-adopted; children dropped off at airports with one-way tickets back to Russia. These two women with very different world-views agree: adoptions abroad must be stopped. Unfortunately the adoption industry takes in some fifty million dollars every year, and this profit is currently shared between more than 80 US adoption agencies acting in Russia; such a lucrative business cannot be stamped out overnight. Before the new law, Lakhova was a lonely voice in the wilderness standing up against the political clout of the international adoption agencies, against the kind of leverage that can only be purchased by multi-million dollar profits. While both Arbatova and Lakhova are pleased that adoption to the US have stopped thanks to Dima’s Law, they will not be satisfied until there is an end to all overseas adoptions.

There are plenty of non-political reasons to single out the US: Americans have snapped up one third of all foreign adoptions; the US has never ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; US authorities continue to refuse to allow Russian consular workers to meet with adopted children; the US allows people who are not allowed to adopt American children to adopt foreign children; the US permits the re-adoption of and free transfer of adopted children. While America may have been the first to be struck off the list, it will not be the last. Other countries also play fast and loose with the laws set down by the Duma. I know personally of Russian children adopted by Israelis; against explicit rules they were converted into the Jewish faith and made to forget their original homeland, language and Christianity.

The vocal opponents of the new Russian law claim that the Americans are only adopting the handicapped children that Russians have refused to adopt. This sounds good on paper, but the definition of what constitutes a handicap becomes confusing when so much money is at stake. The Russian officials, social workers, orphanage managers, and doctors who cooperate to produce the necessary documents to turn a healthy child into a handicapped one are merely pawns in a larger game. Out of a thousand of Russian children adopted into the US last year, less than fifty were officially declared handicapped; furthermore, a recent inspection proved that almost all of them were right as a whistle from the start, and that in most cases the verdict of handicapped was given in exchange for a bribe. Impossible as it may seem, some foreign adopters have seemingly conquered the famed Russian bureaucracy, succeeding in extracting a child in one single day. It takes weeks for a Russian to adopt a Russian child, even under the best of circumstances.

In the wake of the ban, many cases were checked and many violations were uncovered. The previous Russian adoption law allowed children to be adopted abroad only if there were no waiting Russian adopters. To get around this law, the corrupt Russian officials simply scared off the Russian adopters, claiming that the child carried AIDS or other incurable disease. These corrupt officials did not scruple to separate a sister from her brother, sending them off to different countries. In short, the new law exposed terrible breaches of the existing law.

Adoptions that occur within the boundaries and laws of one country are more than difficult enough to evaluate and judge. If a couple (or a single person, or a homosexual couple) has no children, perhaps they are not meant to. People do not have a right to have children: this is a privilege granted by the Almighty. Children do have a natural right to natural parents, and this right is today being infringed by moneyed folk who hire wombs-for-rent or buy babies. Cross-border adoptions are even more troublesome, because then the child can be deprived of his relations, language and faith.

Perhaps in an ideal world, cross-border adoptions would be permitted in certain carefully considered cases. But the real world manifests the unequal footing of international relations: poor people in poor countries are coerced into giving their children to wealthy people in wealthy countries. There may be Americans who come to Russia or Malawi in search of children, but there are no American children flown to Russia or Malawi to be adopted. Swedes import children from Korea, but no Korean has yet been given a Swedish child into his custody. Although every adoptive parent always claims to have the best interest of the child at heart, they are in fact robbing an economically weak country of its most precious asset – its future generation.

For Russia, this law should have come much earlier: after all, Russia is now a very rich and prosperous country. Moscow is as chic as Paris, and much more expensive. Average incomes in Russia are on the level with other developed countries. America take note: the Yeltsin era is gone. Russia is not a colony anymore. The legal detritus from the quasi-colonial Nineties is being cleared away.  The business of overseas adoption is much too close to the crime of child trafficking, and the boundaries between good deed and crime become blurred by legal documents, medical terminology and cold hard cash. The crime of child trafficking is far worse than the potential good (in an ideal world) of overseas adoption. If the would-be adopters truly care about children, the US is not short of orphans, deserted children, hungry children. Let the Americans take care of them, and let the Russian kids grow up in Russia as happily as they can.

Language edited by Paul Bennett.

Israel Shamir reports from Moscow. He can be contacted at adam@israelshamir.net

Israel Shamir can be reached on adam@israelshamir