Passing a new bill in Russia has never presented much of a problem for President Vladimir Putin. With perpetual control of both houses of parliament and a couple of loyalist “opposition” parties to boot, legislation backed by Putin generally amounts to a Kremlin fiat. The hard part this week was in explaining his newest initiative to the public. Intended as a political strike against Washington, the bill does some shocking collateral damage. In effect, it will doom the chances of thousands of Russian orphans, many of them handicapped and emotionally scarred, from being adopted by families in the U.S. How do you justify that?
On Thursday, Putin tried to explain himself in front of a hall full of Russian and foreign journalists, many of whom were clearly outraged by the adoption bill passed the previous day. The first question asked Putin why he had made “the most destitute and helpless children into instruments of political battle.” The second was even more blunt, calling the bill “cannibalistic.” Live on Russian television, Putin mounted a strange defense: How could the journalists stand idly by while the U.S. “humiliates” Russia? “You think that’s normal?” Putin demanded. “What’s normal about being humiliated? You like that? What are you, a sadomasochist? The country will not be humiliated.”
The humiliation Putin had in mind was the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which was passed this month by a huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate. The act seeks to punish a group of Russian officials who have been implicated in the torture and death of a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. In 2008, Magnitsky discovered that a group of Russian officials had stolen $230 million from the Russian treasury. When he blew the whistle on their scheme, some of those same officials allegedly conspired to get him arrested, and he died in a prison cell a year later, having been reportedly beaten and denied medical treatment.
Three years since his death, all of his alleged tormentors are still free. Nearly all of them have either kept their government jobs or been promoted. As a last resort, Magnitsky’s friends and colleagues took their pleas for justice to Western capitals, and Washington has now banned the implicated officials from traveling to the U.S., owning property in the U.S., or holding U.S. bank accounts. Putin called the act “unfriendly” and pledged that it would get an “adequate” response from Russian lawmakers.
On Dec. 11, when that response was presented to the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, I went to the chamber to hear how the lawmakers would justify it. They had some talking points prepared, but some of the bill’s supporters admitted that it was little more than childish chest-thumping, which could blow up in the Kremlin’s face. Vladimir Ovsyannikov, a shaven-headed lawmaker from a nationalist party, called it an example of zhlobstvo, a Russian word that combines the notions of rudeness, pigheadedness and spleen. But since the bill was a Kremlin initiative, he said, his party would be sure to support it. “It is a question of pride,” says Ovsyannikov. “Our sovereignty has been threatened [by the Magnitsky Act], and we need to hit back. Maybe it sounds dumb, but it’s part of the Russian mentality.”
From Putin’s political party, United Russia, one of the main parliamentarians behind the bill is Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the Duma’s foreign-affairs committee, who also hosts a popular political talk show on one of the government’s propaganda channels. Dapper and prim, he met me that day in his office, which is decorated with a portrait of Putin and a little porcelain statuette of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. In explaining the need for a Russian response to the Magnitsky Act, he claims that Washington has long exhausted the moral authority needed to preach about rights violations and must be taught some humility. “In Russia, not only the political class, but the public at large has grown tired of the U.S. lecturing on human rights,” he says. “The hypocrisy has gone through the roof. It’s even funny sometimes,” he adds. “It’s like an alcoholic coming to you and saying, I’ll help you get sober.”
Fine. But why use orphans as a political weapon? Over the past 20 years, more than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families, and 19 of them have died in their care through negligence or domestic violence. Each death is a tragedy, but the rate of child mortality, deprivation and abuse in Russian orphanages is far higher. Pushkov admits as much. “But if the U.S. federal authorities wanted, they could act to at least restore a sense of justice,” he says. “These parents adopt children to get extra welfare benefits, to get money, or they just began to hate this child. It doesn’t matter. There needs to be justice. It is a nationwide consensus. That is why we initiated this.”
His point about a nationwide consensus is, at best, an overstatement. In a survey released on Dec. 7 by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, 39% of respondents said they support the U.S. Magnitsky Act as a way to punish corrupt Russian officials. Only 14% were against it, while 44% of Russians said they would like to see similar legislation passed in Europe. Pushkov brushed this off as the result of ignorance. “When people say it’s good they passed this law to fight corruption in Russia, I think they simply don’t know what’s really going on,” he tells me.
But even among Russia’s political elite, there have been some voices of outrage. Education Minister Dmitri Livanov tweeted on Wednesday that the flawed logic of the bill amounts to revenge. “But that logic is wrong, because our own children may suffer, the ones who could not find foster parents in Russia.” The television celebrity Vladimir Solovyov, known for being a dogged Kremlin loyalist, said according to the bill’s reasoning, “we should now ban giving birth in Russia, because children also get killed here.”
Still, when the bill went up for a vote on Dec. 19, only four Duma deputies voted against it; two abstained, and 400 voted in favor. When the vote was over, the chamber discovered that one of the lawmakers who had supported the bill had died the previous day. Vyacheslav Osipov, a member of Putin’s party, had been ill and absent from the chamber for weeks, and on the morning of the vote, the Duma observed a minute of silence in his honor. But that did not stop one of his colleagues from casting his vote posthumously in support of the adoption bill. The United Russia party explained that this was allowed under Duma rules, but said it would not happen again.
In the coming days, the Duma will have to hold one final vote on the bill, and Putin must sign it before it goes into effect, as expected, on Jan. 1. After that, the adoption ban could be extended to Canada and various European states that are planning to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. “The law has flexibility built into it,” Pushkov tells me of the Russian response. Certainly, though, it gives no flexibility to the orphans waiting to be adopted in Russia. As their numbers jump as a consequence of this bill, Putin and his allies will surely have more explaining to do. And thumping their chests might not do the trick.