Suffer the little children, Russia protestors tell Putin

By bne IntelliNews January 18, 2013

Julia Reed in Moscow -

Near the McDonald's on Pushkin square, small groups of people gathered ready for the march. White ribbons on coats flew here and there. A group of eight girls in their early twenties obviously meeting up for the first time exchanged introductions: "We are all Katyas here except for Lena and Masha," the girls laughed. Otherwise there was not a lot of laughter on the square, just excitement and the feeling of the tension of the moment.

The girls had joined an estimated 9,500 other people on January 13 in central Moscow to protest against the recently passed anti-adoption law that bans Americans from adopting Russian orphans. The law is widely seen as a tit-for-tat reaction to the so-called "Magnitsky bill" signed into law by the US Congress at the end of last year, which bans entry into the US of Russian officials suspected of involvement in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009 while in prison.

Anyone who goes to such rallies recognises the faces of the usual suspects as they approach the security. Most of the regulars aren't media people; they are the activists, the actors behind the scenes responsible for the nitty-gritty of the event. Some 400 portraits of the Duma deputies who voted for the anti-adoption law with their names and a sign "Shame!" were printed out and carried aloft in a colourful display of anger. A lot of the names of the deputies are well known to the general public: they are the actors, singers, filmmakers and athletes who have leveraged their fame to become politicians. Given it was their names that got them their Duma seats in the first place, the protesters feel they are being let down by how the deputies voted.

The Duma has never been popular with the masses, but the latest one vies for being the least popular of all. For the speedy issue of several repressive laws restricting the freedom of the rallies, NGOs and the Internet, it has been nicknamed "mad printer' and lately "the State fool" (a Russian play on words as "Duma" and "dura," or fool, are close). One of the calls of this rally was to disband the Duma.

At the end of December, just days before the Russian response to the Magnitsky Act was signed, the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta on its website started collecting signatures against the American adoption ban and for dismissal of the Duma. Both initiatives have gathered over a 100,000 signatures in just days, and the collections of votes continued at the rally. It was previously said by Putin that any initiative that gathers over a 100,000 supporters, would be considered. Yet the procedure and the terms of how it can be considered remain unclear.

Pride before a fall

The US adoption ban has angered many, even those not usually following politics, because it reminded the general public one more time just how dependent on the will of one man and how remote from the day-to-day life and its issues the Duma and its deputies are.

The US adoption ban is regarded as just the latest (but perhaps the most outrageous) in a series of hastily drawn up and little debated laws that have been initiated by the Duma in its attempt to maintain the regime and preserve its pride. "This law hurts the most vulnerable, the orphans in state homes, who cannot speak for themselves," says Nadezhda Grigoryevna, 63. "I haven't been to any protests since last winter, but this time I couldn't stay at home." Grigoryevna accompanied her daughter Olga, 34: "I know me being here won't change anything, but I came just to show to the world that I'm not on the side of those who supports this law. That's the only thing I can do."

Tatiana, 54, complains that the state-controlled TV channels will likely lie again and say that very few came today. "But look behind you, people and people everywhere," she enthuses. "This Duma doesn't represent our interests. It doesn't understand how people live."

A woman carries a hand-made slogan saying: "A mother does not have a nationality" - one of many who feel that a family is better than a state home. This notion, as common sense as it is, appears to be beyond the Duma. "We don't want them to use children in their games," says another protester.

"Shame! Shame!," shouted the crowd. No speeches were planned for the day, just the march. "It's regrettable that there will not be any speakers," says Yulia, 38. "A lot can be said about this law."

Dreary statistics

It is not known exactly how many orphans exist in Russia. The statistics of the Department of Education from October 2011 say that there are more than 660,000 children without parental care. This number includes the so-called "social orphans" - the children who have biological parents but are not being looked after by them due to poverty, alcoholism and other addictions, absence due to illnesses, divorce or imprisonment. Some 106,000 of these children are in full state custody in one of the 2,000 state homes in Russia.

In 2011 a total of 10,800 children were adopted. Some 3,400 of these went abroad, 965 of which were adopted by Americans. Only 38 children with disabilities were adopted by Russians and 89 by Americans in 2011. The numbers for 2012 have not yet been released.

The numbers show that there are a lot more orphans in Russia than there are people domestically and internationally who are willing to adopt them. Given how slim the chances of being adopted are, especially for children with disabilities, the law clearly goes against the interests of Russian orphans. What can the Russian state offer its orphans instead?

There is speculation that it won't be long before a full ban on foreign adoption is introduced, since foreign adoption hurts Russian state pride. On December 28, Putin signed a law saying that by February 15 measures should be outlined in order to "quickly improve the situation with orphans and to simplify the procedure for Russian nationals willing do adopt."

Many remain skeptical about any new measures. More money poured into the problem is unlikely to cure it; Russians aren't rushing to adopt just because they don't own the required size properties or because the adoption procedure is long, humiliating and drawn-out. No state benefits can cover the real costs of raising a healthy child, let alone a child with special needs. In the environment where education and medical care are inadequate and in urgent need of reform, a ban on any foreign adoption can only be seen as cruel.

The anti-Magnitsky ban didn't damage the Americans it targeted. They can still turn to Ukraine, Kazakhstan or China for adoption, but it hurt Russia's own, most vulnerable, young citizens. Yet again in Russian history this "human-eating" law demonstrated that the country puts state rhetoric and pseudo-patriotism before real people's needs, and that in Russia there remains a lot of state and not a lot of civil society.

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