Moscow: Defying a storm of domestic and international criticism, Russia moved toward finalising a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, as Parliament's upper house voted unanimously in favour of a measure that President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign into law.
The bill is widely seen as the Kremlin's retaliation against an American law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators. It comes as Putin takes an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the West, brushing aside concerns about a crackdown on dissent and democratic freedoms.
Dozens of Russian children close to being adopted by American families now will almost certainly be blocked from leaving the country. The law also cuts off the main international adoption route for Russian children stuck in often dismal orphanages: Tens of thousands of Russian youngsters have been adopted in the US in the past 20 years. There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.
All 143 members of the Federation Council present on Wednesday voted to support the bill, which has sparked criticism from both the US and Russian officials, activists and artists, who say it victimises children by depriving them of the chance to escape the squalor of orphanage life. The vote comes days after Parliament's lower house overwhelmingly approved the ban.
The US State Department said Wednesday it regretted the Russian parliament's decision.
"Since 1992, American families have welcomed more than 60,000 Russian children into their homes, providing them with an opportunity to grow up in a family environment," spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement from Washington. "The bill passed by Russia's parliament would prevent many children from enjoying this opportunity ...
"It is misguided to link the fate of children to unrelated political considerations," he said.
Seven people with posters protesting the bill were detained outside the Council before Wednesday's vote. "Children get frozen in the Cold War," one poster read. Some 60 people rallied in St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.
The bill is part of larger legislation by Putin-allied lawmakers retaliating against a recently signed US law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators. Although Putin has not explicitly committed to signing the bill, he strongly defended it in a press conference last week as "a sufficient response" to the new US law.
Originally Russia's lawmakers cobbled together a more or less a tit-for-tat response to the US law, providing for travel sanctions and the seizure of financial assets in Russia of Americans determined to have violated the rights of Russians.
But it was expanded to include the adoption measure and call for a ban on any organisations that are engaged in political activities if they receive funding from U.S. citizens or are determined to be a threat to Russia's interests.
Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov told the Interfax news agency that 46 children who were on the verge of being adopted by Americans would stay in Russia if the bill is approved - despite court rulings in some of these cases authorising the adoptions.
The ombudsman supported the bill, saying that foreign adoptions discourage Russians from adopting children. "A foreigner who has paid for an adoption always gets a priority compared to potential Russian adoptive parents," Astakhov was quoted as saying. "A great country like Russia cannot sell its children."
Russian law allows foreigners to adopt only if a Russian family has not expressed interest in a child being considered for adoption.
Some top government officials, including the foreign minister, have spoken flatly against the adoption law, arguing that the measure would be in violation of Russia's constitution and international obligations.
But Senator Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Council's foreign affairs committee, referred to the bill as "a natural and a long overdue response" to the US legislation. "Children must be placed in Russian families, and this is a cornerstone issue for us," he said.
Margelov said that a bilateral Russian-US agreement binds Russia to give notice of a halt to adoptions 12 months in advance. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that the president would consider the bill within the next two weeks.
The measure has become one of the most debated topics in Russia.
By Tuesday, more than 100,000 Russians had signed an online petition urging the Kremlin to scrap the bill.
Over the weekend, dozens of Muscovites placed toys and lit candles in front of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament after it approved the bill on Friday, but security guards promptly removed them. Opposition groups said they will rally against the bill on Jan. 13, and several popular artists publicly voiced their concern about the legislation.
While receiving a state award from Putin on Wednesday, film actor Konstantin Khabensky wore a badge saying "Children Are Beyond Politics." Veteran rock musician Andrey Makarevich called on Putin Monday to stop "killing children."
During a marathon Putin press conference Thursday, eight of the 60 questions the president answered focused on the bill. Responding angrily, Putin claimed that Americans routinely mistreat children from Russia.
The bill is named in honor of Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who was adopted by Americans and then died in 2008 after his father left him in a car in broiling heat for hours. The father was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A Russian television report showed Yakovlev's blind grandmother who claimed that the US family that adopted her grandson forged her signature on documents allowing them to take the boy outside Russia.
Russian lawmakers argue that by banning adoptions to the US they would be protecting children and encouraging adoptions inside Russia.
In a measure of the virulent anti-U.S. sentiment that has gripped parts of Russian society, a few lawmakers went even further, claiming that some Russian children were adopted by Americans only to be used for organ transplants and become sex toys or cannon fodder for the US Army.
Americans involved in adoption of Russian children find the new legislation upsetting.
Bill Blacquiere, president of New York City-based Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest adoption agencies in the US, said he hopes Putin won't sign the bill.
"It would be very sad for kids to grow up in orphanages," Blacquiere said. "And would hurt them socially, psychologically and mentally. We all know that caring for children in institutions is just not a very good thing."
Joyce Sterkel, who runs a Montana ranch for troubled children adopted abroad and has adopted three Russian children herself, said she is concerned for the estimated 700,000 children who live in state-run institutions in Russia.
"I would prefer that the Russians take care of their own children. I would prefer that people in the United States take care of their own children," Sterkel said Wednesday. "But if a suitable home cannot be found in that country, it seems reasonable that a child should be able to find a home outside."