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Russia's Putin Signs Controversial Adoption Bill

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 1:42 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a measure into law that would ban Americans from adopting Russian children.

Russia's parliament had overwhelmingly approved the ban, which was designed as retaliation for a new U.S. law that sanctions Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

The adoption ban stirred outrage in Russia as well as the United States.

An online petition against the measure rapidly collected more than 100,000 signatures in Russia.

Which raises the question: Why would Russia's leaders choose to retaliate in a way that might do their country's image more harm than good?

Putin told a meeting of top Russian officials on Thursday that he would issue a decree that would change Russia's system for taking care of orphans.

The Russian leader mocked the idea that Russian orphans might have a better life in other countries. He said that while living standards in many countries might be better than Russia's, it doesn't mean they should send their children there.

It may be hard for Americans to fathom why Russia's leaders seem willing to take such a drastic and potentially unpopular step.

Masha Lipman, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says the answer has its roots in resentment of the fact that Russia, once on a par with America in terms of power, has now been relegated to second-class status.

Lipman says that makes it easy for the government to resort to anti-American rhetoric when it feels threatened, especially by the wave of anti-government protest that erupted in major cities last winter.

In that atmosphere, she says, the U.S. legislation known as the Magnitsky Act was seen as a humiliating interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

"Throughout his tenure, Putin has repeatedly sent the signal, nobody has the right to teach us or preach to us," Lipman says. "And here it comes, the ultimate insult, because it teaches and tell us which Russians will be barred from America because they are implicated in human rights abuse — and the desire to respond is almost irrational."

The Magnitsky Act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who exposed what he said was a massive tax fraud on the part of Russian officials.

Human rights groups say Magnitsky was sent to jail in retaliation for his whistle-blowing and that he died there in 2009 as a result of maltreatment and denial of medical attention.

The U.S. act sanctions Russian officials who are believed to have been involved in Magnitsky's death.

Lipman says many of the American lawmakers who voted for the Magnitsky legislation may have done so without much thought to the response it would stir in Russia.

But Russian lawmakers seem not to have considered either the international or domestic reaction to their legislation.

Lipman says outrage against the bill is no longer confined to people who would normally be thought of as opposition members.

"We have a divide inside the Russian Orthodox Church, with some people in the top church hierarchy being against the law and others being for it. We have a split in the Russian Cabinet; several ministers have spoken, cautiously so, but spoken against it, pointing out that this amendment would be in conflict with the Russian Constitution," Lipman adds.

Officials have said the first to suffer from the measure may be 46 American families who have nearly completed the adoption process, and are waiting for their Russian children.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Russia's parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, it was greeted with outrage, both in the U.S. and Russia. The ban is seen as a new U.S. law that imposes sanctions against Russian officials accused of violating human rights. An online petition against the measure rapidly collected more than 100,000 signatures in Russia. But today, President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Putin signaled, this week, that he planned to approve the measure, which he has called a tough but fair response to the United States.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In a meeting with top government officials, the Russian leader mocked the idea that Russian orphans might have a better life in other countries. He said that living standards in many countries might be better than Russia, but does that mean we should send our children there? It may be hard for Americans to fathom why Russia's leaders would be willing to take such a drastic and potentially unpopular step.

Masha Lipman, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says the answer has its roots in resentment of the fact that Russia, once on a par with America in terms of power, has now been relegated to second-class status. Lipman says that makes it easy for the government to resort to anti-American rhetoric when it feels threatened, especially by the wave of anti-government protests that erupted in major cities last winter. In that atmosphere, she says, the U.S. legislation, known as the Magnitsky Act, was seen as a humiliating interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

MASHA LIPMAN: Throughout his tenure, Putin has repeatedly sent the signal nobody has the right to teach us or preach to us. And here it comes, an ultimate insult, because it teaches and tell us which Russians will be barred from America, because they are implicated in human rights abuse, and the desire to respond is almost irrational.

FLINTOFF: The Magnitsky Act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who exposed what he said was a massive tax fraud on the part of Russian officials. Human rights groups say Magnitsky was sent to jail in retaliation for his whistle-blowing, and that he died there in 2009 as a result of maltreatment and denial of medical attention.

The U.S. act sanctions Russian officials who are believed to have been involved in Magnitsky's death. Lipman says many of the American lawmakers who voted for the Magnitsky legislation may have done so without much thought to the response it would stir in Russia. But Russian lawmakers seem not to have considered, either the international or domestic reaction to their legislation. She says outrage against the bill is no longer confined to people who would normally be thought of as opposition members.

LIPMAN: We have a divide inside the Russian Orthodox Church, with some people in the top church hierarchy being against the law and others being for it. We have a split in the Russian cabinet, several ministers have spoken - cautiously so, but spoken against it - pointing out that this amendment would be in conflict with the Russian constitution.

FLINTOFF: Despite the opposition, Putin has now signed the law, and he followed it with a presidential degree calling for changes in Russia's orphanages. Russia's ombudsman for children's rights, a Putin ally, has said the ban will apply to 46 American families that have nearly completed the adoption process and were waiting for their Russian children.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.