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In Response to Sanctions, Russia Aims to Bar U.S. Adoptions of Russian Children

December 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Responding to U.S. sanctions on human rights violators from Russia, lawmakers at the Kremlin gave final approval of legislation to bar Americans from adopting Russian children. Ray Suarez talks to Lauren Koch of the National Council for Adoption and of Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution about the developments.
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MARGARET WARNER: We turn now to Russia, where a proposed new law on adoptions, which is causing alarm in the United States, came a step closer to being enacted today.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: In Moscow today, President Vladimir Putin said he does intend to sign a bill that bars Americans from adopting Russian children.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through translator): You know, after all, in the world there are probably a lot places where the quality of life is better than here, but so what?

We need to support the proposal which is directed at doing everything in our own country in order to provide for a worthy future for all of our children.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, Russian lawmakers gave final approval to the legislation. It was, pointedly, named after a Russian toddler who died after his adoptive American father left him in a hot car in 2008. The adoptions bill is a direct response to the Magnitsky Act, signed this month by President Obama. It slaps sanctions on Russian human rights violators.

Russian President Putin and other Kremlin leaders have roundly condemned that measure.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): This is without any doubt an unfriendly act towards the Russian Federation.

RAY SUAREZ: But the Russian response, banning U.S. adoptions, has garnered criticism even inside the country.

SVETLANA GANNUSHKINA, human rights activist (through translator): Concerning the law itself, of course it disappoints me, because we know a lot of instances when children who have no future here end up in the United States, and get a loving family and a future because the government takes care of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children in the past two decades. The impending ban means families currently in the adoption process are left in limbo.

PATRICK GRIFFIN, Seeking to Adopt: We have already started preparing our home, not remodeling or painting or buying furniture or anything, but just preparing the emotional state of our home and of ourselves and our children for the change that is going to occur.

RAY SUAREZ: For their part, senior officials in Moscow have indicated the bill will block children already selected for U.S. adoption from leaving Russia. When it’s signed into law, the adoption ban will take effect Jan. 1.

For more on all this, we are joined by Lauren Koch, the director of development and communications at the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit organization that promotes adoption.

And Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently served as the national intelligence officer for Russia at the National Intelligence Council. Her upcoming book is titled “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”

Welcome to you both.

Fiona Hill, is this even about adopted children at all, or is this about a more confrontational stance towards the United States?

FIONA HILL, Brookings Institution: Well, sadly, it is now about adopted children, which, of course, the story makes very clear.

But it’s come out of really campaign politics on both sides of the United States and in Russia. Mr. Putin faced, actually, a rather surprisingly bruising campaign to become president again, in spite of the fact that everybody saw him as a shoo-in.

And as part of that campaign, he really did ratchet up anti-American sentiment. He blamed protests that took place around the elections for the Russian parliament and around the presidential elections that brought many thousands of people out in the streets in Moscow and elsewhere, he blamed all those on U.S. support.

He’s taken a lot of punitive action against U.S. NGOs. He’s declared many non-governmental organizations in Russia that receive foreign funding, especially funding from the United States, to be foreign agents. People now under a new legislation have to register themselves as foreign agents. And, unfortunately, this is also part of that.

RAY SUAREZ: So, by ratcheting up anti-American sentiment, does this kind of thing play well where with the Russian public, keeping the orphans inside the country, rather than letting them go to the United States to live?

FIONA HILL: Well, certain amounts of punitive action against the United States does play particularly well.

Part of the story is also the Magnitsky bill, the legislation that’s just gone through the Congress that the president signed last week. And this is seen in many respects as sort of a tit for tat.

The U.S. always, in the Russian view, applies a double standard. It is always taking punitive action and applying sanctions against Russia. So this does play well.

However, as I think as we saw from the clips at the very beginning, there’s been some soul-searching on the part of many Russians about this particular bill, because this is a disproportionate action. This is something that actually hurts Russian children, as well as ordinary families. So this is really sort of taking things in a very different angle.

RAY SUAREZ: Lauren Koch, in an era where international adoptions have become more common in the United States, where does Russia rank as the home country of foreign-born adoptees here?

LAUREN KOCH, National Council for Adoption: Historically, Russia has been one of the most popular sending countries to America.

Right now, China is the leading country. Russia is certainly in the top five. With over 700,000 orphans in that country, there are certainly plenty of children who need a loving family here in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: How about that side of the story? UNICEF estimates there’s only about 18,000 Russian families looking to adopt children. That’s a really disproportionate number, considering the need for new homes.

LAUREN KOCH: It is.

And last year alone here in America, there were 1,000 children adopted from Russia. There are many American families, many of whom right now are in the process of adopting these children, that are willing, ready, and able to adopt these kids, some of which have severe special needs.

So it really speaks to the heart of these American families that are willing to adopt these kids and bring them home.

RAY SUAREZ: But there have been unfortunate stories that have gotten a lot of attention here in the United States and back in Russia. Does that make things more difficult for your organization and others that are watching international adoptions?

LAUREN KOCH: Sure. Well, I think what we have to remember here is there have been over 45,000 children from Russia have that have come to America, most of whom thrive in healthy, successful families here.

The very small number of cases of abuse, neglect and in very terrible cases death shouldn’t account for such a large number of successful adoptions that have happened.

I would hate to see orphans in Russia now suffer simply because of a couple of very tragic and sad instances here, which, by all means, should never be overlooked. Any cases in which a child is in a harmful situation should always be taken very seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Fiona, we saw the Russian president, Mr. Putin, talking about keeping the kids here and taking care of them here. Is there a nationalist aspect to this? Is it considered an embarrassment to Russia that so many kids, more than 700,000, have no place to live?

FIONA HILL: I think that certainly is the case. In fact, I think if you actually look at these kinds of instances across the world, there always is a nationalist element to something like this.

There’s certainly plenty of people here in the United States who also believe that parents or would-be parents should be adopting here in the United States and taking care of their own children.

This is, as I said, a phenomenon that you hear in European countries and many others that there’s a lot of resistance building up in many places to transnational, to international adoptions.

And, often, this kind of sentiment plays very well, but I think, as Lauren will probably tell us, from the very statistics, it doesn’t always translate into stepped-up adoptions at home, and certainly not into more money or orphanages and for the extensive care systems that children require.

So we will actually have to see if because Mr. Putin has now staked to some degree some of his reputation on this — he made those pronouncements as we saw in the TV clips at his big annual press call-in — he’s actually now laid out in many respects a commitment to do more, so we will have to see if that is indeed the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Lauren, haven’t other countries from time to time either curtailed or shut down totally the flow of children to the United States?

LAUREN KOCH: We have seen that, most notably probably Guatemala, Ethiopia. That was a potential recently.

We have also seen President Putin threaten very similar bans on American-Russian adoptions in the past. And he has before now never signed a ban like that. And what we can hope for right now is that he won’t sign this bill and that we can make sure these children find safe, loving families.

RAY SUAREZ: This isn’t the only irritant in the Russo-American relationship, is it, Fiona? Hasn’t the Russian Duma also recently passed another bill making it very difficult for the United States?

FIONA HILL: They have. As I already mentioned, unfortunately, we have been in this kind of state of reciprocal actions and legislative combat, if one wants to put it that way, for several months now, since the election campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.

And we have already seen the Russian Duma pass this legislation that’s been quite punitive against non-governmental organizations, in part driven by this idea that the U.S. government in many respects was sponsoring some of the political protests against President Putin’s presidency.

So, we’re in that kind of phase that, unfortunately, we’re in very frequently in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

If we look back over the last 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have constantly tried to reset the relationship with Russia, and time and again after a brief period of euphoria in many respects about a new partnership or about a new start, we end up within several months to a year of being right back again to some kind of spat over spying, over legislation that’s perceived as a double standard by the Russians, or over some other large issue.

There’s many irritants, unfortunately, in the relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Fiona Hill, Lauren Koch, thank you both.

FIONA HILL: Thank you.

LAUREN KOCH: Thank you.