The headline atop this article is from a Russian newspaper criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to sign a bill forbidding Americans from adopting Russian orphans despite the fact that thousands of them living in orphanages and children’s homes. The author of that piece seemed less concerned about the children than he did about the new law’s impact on Russian politics.
Adoptions, however, are not behind this Russian-American spat? Human rights are.
The United States charged that the human rights of a Rus-sian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, were violated. As a result, Con-gress passed and President Obama signed the Sergei Mag-nitsky Rule of Law Accoun-tability Act. It places financial and visa sanctions on officials connected to his arrest, imprisonment and death.
Magnitsky had unearthed a $230 million tax fraud scheme that involved Russian tax agency officials as well as the police. He was arrested by the same police officers he said were carrying out the fraud. He died in jail in 2009. An investigation by Russia’s presidential council on human rights concluded that Magnitsky had been severely beaten and was denied medical treatment.
A judge recently ruled that there was no evidence of negligence leading to Mag-nitsky’s death. Accor-ding to Putin, Magnit-sky “died of heart failure.”
So what is the truth? Given the level of corruption in Russia, there is almost certainly some truth to the charges against the Russian officials. For example, in the Russian military, 40 percent of the budget is siphoned off. Furthermore, despite multiple campaigns to clean up the police, most Russians consider them brutal and corrupt. It was common to see police officers pull cars over for no reason. The officer would ask for the driver’s permit. When the driver handed it over, it was expected to have a 10 ruble or 15 ruble note in it.
Russia’s retaliation against the United Stated seems to have initiated not in the Kremlin, but in the Duma. The Duma, (Russia’s House of Represent-atives) sometimes has considerable autonomy as long it doesn’t go against Kremlin policy.
Many Russian lawmakers were indignant that the United States would pass the Magnitsky Law. Many fear that the list of about 60 individuals will be expanded and that Western European countries will pass similar laws. Indeed, a sharp reaction by Russia was predictable. The Duma passed the measure with only 7 “no” votes, and the Federation Council (similar to our Senate) passed it unanimously.
So what is up with the Russians? First, they are embarrassed at the number of orphans up for adoption. The image of the “rich uncle” from America coming to take orphans home only increases their resentment. Furthermore, the notion that Washington would decide which Russians were good and which were not was unacceptable.
It is worth noting that Russians do not understand the concept of human rights the same way Americans and West-ern Europeans do. When asked what was more important, economic affluence or security, Russians overwhelmingly chose security. The concept of human rights means having a place to live and enough to live on.
Russia has another concern. For many years, Moscow has been tightening down on NGOs — nongovernmental organizations — with ties to the West, especially those that get financial support from the West. Many in Russian fear that the U.S. law will lead to further Russian crackdowns on organizations not entirely Russian.
In the meantime, about 55 Russian children are in the pipeline to be adopted by Americans. However, any adoptions not completed by Jan. 1, 2013, are now void. As far as Moscow is concerned, it has made its point; it got even with the Americans.
I oppose these human rights laws. Yes, there is corruption in Russia, but we have bigger issues in our bilateral relationship. At present, about 740,000 children in Russia are not in parental custody. About 18,000 Russians on waiting lists to be adopted. The United States is the largest destination for adopted children, with Amer-icans having adopted 60,000 of them in the last 20 years.
The problem with Russia’s new law is that it obviates the painstakingly negotiated agreement with the United States on child adoption. Alternatively, the Kremlin could have focused on a supply route crucial to the United States that runs through Russia to Afghanistan.
Instead, Moscow responded in a way that only gave fuel to Americans who resist improvements in our bilateral relations. That is why many members of Putin’s cabinet, especially those who involved with international relations, expressed concern.
Unfortunately, politicians on both sides sometimes do dumb things. This was certainly one of them. We repay Russia for actions we don’t like by sanctioning some of their officials, and Russia gets even by hurting its own children. It is time for some adults to step forward.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KS and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.