When Russian President Vladimir signed a bill in late December that would block all American adoptions of Russian children, the reaction in the United States was as severe as you'd expect. After all, Americans adopt hundreds of children from Russia every year, a reprieve to both American families and to Russia's over-stressed orphanage system, not to mention the children themselves. The ban was seen as a political ploy by Putin to stir up nationalist sentiment, as well as retaliation against a recent U.S. law that targets suspected Russian human rights abusers, but it has also helped to galvanize the opposition. How are people in Russia talking about the ban? What is it doing for the beleaguered opposition? Will Englund, a Moscow correspondent for the Post, has been reporting on the ban and its aftereffects. He shares some of his thoughts below.
You're in Moscow. Do you find that people are discussing the adoption law very much? What are the conversations like – angry? conspiratorial? apathetic?
Everyone's talking about it. I think in Moscow itself it's fair to say that a very large number of people are dismayed that the parliament would take this step. There's a feeling that the country is run by fools -- a feeling often expressed. Polls show that throughout the country a bit more than half support the ban (though I'm not sure about the reliability of these particular polls). I think that has to do with the monopoly on news that is enjoyed by Kremlin-friendly TV, as opposed to the more varied outlets that Muscovites turn to.
Yes. One poll showed one in 10 of the ban supporters saying they think American families just want Russian children for manual labor. How wide is the division between people who oppose the ban, like those you mention in Moscow, and the folks who support it?
President Vladimir Putin has clearly embarked on a strategy over the past year of trying to divide Russian society, marking the urban middle class as elite, snobbish and out-of-touch. He is betting that he can keep a majority on his side by clarifying the division. (Does this sound familiar to you in Washington?) Given the control of TV that I mentioned, he's so far got a good chance of making this work for him. When you go outside of Moscow, even people who don't like the system roll their eyes a bit at what's happening here in the big city. That's a real problem for the opposition. Anyway, the adoption law fits into this very neatly.
You wrote that the adoption law has "struck a deep chord here and energized a dispirited opposition." Is the opposition trying to seize on this to close the class/urban-rural division, or do they risk walking right into Putin's trap?
At yesterday's march they were just pleased that so many turned out in Moscow, without worrying about the rest of the country. We had one estimate of 60 - 70,000, which I think is probably about right. This makes it the biggest demonstration since the one May 6 following Putin's inaugural. But a lot of people today are wondering what happens next. Is there organizing by the opposition outside Moscow? Very little. Still, I wouldn't characterize this as walking into a trap.
The government recently said that the law probably won't go into effect until 2014, but shortly after said that only approved adoptions would go forward, which you reported could be as few as six children. Is Putin showing signs of having been surprised by the backlash?
He has said nothing publicly. Other than that announcement by his press guy, there haven't been too many signs at all. Today, the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said more has to be done to make adoptions by Russians a smoother process. There are about 125,000 orphans eligible for adoption out of 600,000 orphans total, and just 18,000 Russian families who are willing, according to Olga Golodets, a deputy prime minister who, incidentally, opposed the new law.
Has the public response to the adoption ban represented, in your eyes, any significant change in Russian politics, whether from the organized opposition or in terms of public opinion? Or is everyone playing to form so far?
There is a difference, even if it's not a huge one. Yesterday's march was defined as a "civic action," not a political protest, and it brought out people who had not taken part in any of the earlier opposition rallies. (It also brought out plenty of veterans of those rallies.) I think what's new here is that this is real -- it's a political dispute, but it has actual consequences, in real life. And the people who don't like the law say its primary victims are Russian orphans, whose lives may suffer as a result. This is the chord that has been struck.
Who are the people who are new to the demonstrations?
We talked to a doctor, who came with her young child. There was another couple with their daughter. People who know something about what orphans in state care face. Russians complain about the difficulty in getting quality medical care or a quality education for themselves or their families, and they fully understand that for orphans the odds of doing so are less than minimal. Over the years, it has seemed to me that there's a real recognition among anyone who has thought about this issue that these kids will be better off in the United States.
Actually, that's my last question, about the state media push to convince people otherwise. Miriam Elder, who reports in Moscow for the Guardian, sent me this video clip on Twitter. Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador, responded that he had seen it. I don't speak Russian so I don't know what it says. Have you seen this floating around?
I hadn't seen this one but it's pretty typical. It suggests there's all sorts of abuse of Russian adoptees in American homes. It mentions that 19 have died (that's according to a State Department figure), out of 60,000 adopted, and suggests they'd be safer in Russia. It doesn't go into some of the more lurid accusations. Of course, there have been problems, as there inevitably would be. The Russian press has tended over the years to cover these problems and deaths quite thoroughly. Russian officials have been angered by what they see as light sentences for offenders, and a lack of cooperation from state authorities when they try to check up on adoptees after they have left for America. This last problem strikes me as naive on their part. But there has been a long-running undercurrent of uneasiness over Russian kids going abroad to live with adoptive families, mixed in with a certain sense of humiliation. That's what we've seen coming out this month over the adoption question.