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Pavel Astakhov, star of courtroom and TV, is Russia's ombudsman for children

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A13

MOSCOW -- Pavel Astakhov, the slim, smooth-talking lawyer known as Russia's version of Judge Judy, was on television again. But instead of presiding over his mock courtroom, he was holding up the note that a Tennessee nurse had sent with her adopted son when she returned him to Russia, the one explaining that she no longer wanted the boy.

"You can't throw a child on a plane, excuse me, like a kitten," Astakhov said indignantly as the cameras rolled, gesturing as if he were tossing trash to the ground. "An unaccompanied 7-year-old child shipped back across the ocean to Russia -- that's cruelty, at the very least."

It was a bravura performance in a drama that has provoked outrage across Russia, one that Astakhov has repeated again and again with slight variations. But the Kremlin official now leading talks with Washington on the future of U.S. adoptions of Russian children isn't your typical Vladimir Putin-loving, America-bashing Russian politician. For much of his career, in fact, he has been almost the opposite.

Astakhov, 43, was appointed state ombudsman for children's rights in December, but he gained fame a decade earlier as a young lawyer who battled the authorities on behalf of high-profile, politically sensitive clients. He is also one of the very few top officials in Moscow with a degree from an American university.

For the 3,000 or so U.S. families waiting anxiously to adopt a Russian child, Astakhov has a reassuring message. "Don't worry," he said in a recent interview. "We'll continue this work. We'll give our children a chance to see another reality."

But he also warned that Russia would outlaw foreign adoptions if Washington refused to sign a pact regulating the process. "If you want to sell me a truck of potatoes, you can't do it without a bilateral treaty between our countries," he said. "But if I want to send you a baby, it's okay without any agreement. That's horrible."

Legal entrepreneur

Such bluntness has served Astakhov well since he joined the bar in the early 1990s after graduating from a KGB institute in the Soviet Union's final months. He soon emerged as one of the most prominent members of that first generation of lawyers operating independently of the state, with a reputation for presenting his case as aggressively in the media as in the courtroom.

"Our mission is to defend, to defend your right to work, to property, to life and to justice," he says in a video on his Web site, which resembles an ad you might see on late-night television, but slicker.

His most well-known clients included Vladimir Gusinsky, the billionaire Putin critic who was forced to give up Russia's most independent television station, and Edmond Pope, an American businessman convicted of espionage but later pardoned. With the world watching in the latter case, Astakhov delivered part of his closing argument in verse.

Now Astakhov appears on television daily as the star of three legal education programs, including "Hour of Judgment," a popular show in which he adjudicates cases similar to those on "The People's Court" in the United States. (The cases are based on real ones, but actors play the characters because defendants in Russia rarely agree to go on air, he said.)

He also runs a legal aid center linked to the show, serves as a university dean and is the author of more than 35 books about law, including a children's series and at least five novels, one of which portrayed Russian police so negatively that a top official tried to charge him with defamation. The hero of his story? A fearless lawyer.

"Pavel is the ultimate legal entrepreneur," said Ronald Brand, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's law school, where Astakhov earned a master's degree in 2002. Brand said students from Russia often tell him that Astakhov "probably has done more to help ordinary people in Russia understand the rule of law than anybody else."

In an essay published in 2007, Astakhov looked back fondly on his time in Pittsburgh, recalling karate classes with his children and even describing the United States as his "second motherland." But later that year, he agreed to lead a group, "For Putin," in support of the former president and current prime minister, who relishes attacking the West and is often criticized for undermining rule of law.

"I have the impression that he does all these different things because the bar is too cramped for him," Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said of Astakhov. "He wants more. He's ambitious. . . . He wants to move forward all the time."

Astakhov demurred when asked if he has a future in politics, saying he is too busy in his new post to think about it. But he defended Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, saying he can "prove" they have done a good job.

Russia's own woes

Astakhov's detractors call him an opportunist and a publicity hound, and even some who welcome the energy he has brought to the ombudsman's office wonder if he spends too much time chasing the cameras. "He's very active, and that's good," said Svetlana Bocharova, head of the children's advocacy group Kindness Without Borders. "But I think he should pay more attention to protecting the rights of children in Russia and less to PR for himself."

Astakhov dismissed such criticism, arguing that it makes sense to rely on journalists and mass media to focus attention on the problems that Russian children face. He also denied that the case of the boy returned from Tennessee, Artyom Savelyev, has received more scrutiny than the plight of orphans and children adopted in Russia.

In interviews condemning Artyom's treatment, Astakhov has not hesitated to discuss Russia's own dismal record of protecting children, especially the more than 700,000 housed in state orphanages he says are plagued with fraud and waste. As many as 8,000 children adopted by Russian families were returned last year, he often points out, including more than 1,000 by court order after suffering violence or other abuse.

Astakhov has used Artyom's case to go after the dozens of foreign adoption agencies operating in Russia, too, arguing that they ignore official requests for information and charge fees of up to $50,000 per child. But he said he has no plan to cut the number of Russian children adopted abroad and argued that an adoption agreement -- such as one the United States has signed with China -- would make the process easier for American families.

Negotiations on an accord began last Thursday. Astakhov said he is pushing for a clause suggesting children be exposed to Russian language and culture, as well as for greater Russian oversight of the foreign agencies and the adoption process.

He said he expects a deal within months, then repeated a sound bite he has delivered many times with a showman's flair. "Why can't we reach an agreement for adoptions," he asked, "if we can do it for nuclear weapons?"

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