Russia Responds to U.S. by Punishing Orphans

The new antiadoption law harms Russia's interests. It's also plain mean.

On January 2, the U.S. Senate unanimously condemned the “Dima Yakovlev Law,” a measure hastily adopted around Christmas time, that victimizes Russian orphans—and Russian democracy.

This piece of legislation bars the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. It is named after Dima Yakovlev, an adopted child from Russia, who in 2008 was abandoned by his father in a sweltering SUV and died. A tragic case, to be sure. But the Duma’s aim, initiated by the Office of the President of Russia, was not to protect innocents, but to retaliate against Congress for passing the Magnitsky Law.

Sergey Magnitsky was a whistle blower and an accountant/lawyer for the Hermitage Fund (the largest private equity fund in Russia) and its U.S.-born CEO Bill Browder. Magnitsky died in 2009 in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison after he exposed alleged fraud by law enforcement officials that had cost the Russian treasury $230 million.

Bill Browder successfully lobbied Congress for a law that would punish Magnitsky’s murderers and their bosses. By passing the law, Congress brought attention to the rot that has set in post-Soviet Russia. Indeed, U.S. lawmakers were doing the job of Russian lawmakers. If Russian law enforcement had punished Magnitsky’s killers instead of promoting them, the law would never have passed in the first place.

The Russian government, however, forgot about the popular wisdom: “When in a hole, stop digging.” The retaliatory Dima Yakovlev law is, in fact, a serious self-inflicted PR wound. It goes after the wrong targets. Not only is it plain mean—it also undermines Russian national interests and those of the United States. It cuts Moscow’s proverbial nose to spite its face.

The law bans the successful and humane practice of U.S. adoption of Russian orphans, many of whom are disabled. By taking effect immediately, it fell with particular cruelty on four dozen kids who were already in the process of adoption. They, too, are barred from going to their prospective adoptive parents in the United States.

Moscow’s action inadvertently draws worldwide attention to the horrible plight of Russian orphans. According to UNICEF, over 600,000 children are kept in state institutions, while the Russian government “admits” that it is “only” 110,000. In a country which is the biggest producer of oil and gas in the world, up to one million kids live in the streets—a disgrace for a prospective OECD member.

The Dima Yakovlev law also bans U.S. or U.S.-funded non-profit organizations which are helping Russia to develop modern institutions. As National Interest editor Robert Merry wrote on these pages, it prevents Americans from working for them or leading them, and forbids Russian NGOs from accepting money from the United States—a clear attempt to punish those in the Russian opposition who have ties with America. The law also demands that all NGOs that accept money from any foreign source register as “foreign agents.” A chilling measure indeed.

Many Russian leaders, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others opposed the measure; the opposition media calls it “cannibals’ law” and “Herod’s law.”

Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets and Vladimir Lukin, the Human Rights Ombudsman who was the first post-Soviet Russian Ambassador to the United States, argued that it violates the Russian Constitution and the country’s international treaty commitments, such as the International Convention on the Rights of Child, and is wide open to a Constitutional Court challenge. However, with Valery Zorkin chairing the Constitutional Court, chances of legal annulment of the “Dima law” are nil.

During Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 crackdown against the communist- and nationalist-dominated Supreme Soviet, Zorkin sided with the Supreme Soviet. A certifiable anti-American, Zorkin was heavily influenced by pre-revolutionary statist Russian jurists. He believes that the state is always right and must be preserved at all costs. He denies the opposition any “extra-legal” right to protest—even when the State tramples the law.

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