WASHINGTON, February 14 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - Russia’s ban of adoptions by US parents was enacted solely with the welfare of Russian children in mind, Moscow’s top envoy to Washington said this week, despite widespread perception among Americans that it was a retaliatory political act.
Speaking in an interview with RIA Novosti, Ambassador Sergei Kislyak lamented an unwillingness among many in the United States even to listen to Russia’s case for halting US adoptions, evidence of a polarizing dynamic he said speaks to deeper dysfunctions in the relationship between the two countries.
“I wouldn’t call it a reaction to Magnitsky. It wasn’t,” said Kislyak, referring to a US law crafted to punish Russians deemed by Washington to have violated human rights. That law was passed days before Russia imposed its ban and media in both countries characterized the latter as strictly tit-for-tat retaliation.
“It coincided because people were discussing the issue of human rights” in both Washington and Moscow, Kislyak said, “and that was kind of the trigger of the reaction of many people in the Duma,” the Russian parliament that overwhelmingly approved the US adoption ban in December.
“Russian kids who are being adopted here sometimes are not properly cared for,” he said. “And we also have a feeling that we cannot get enough access to information about the kids.”
Tragic Cases of Abuse
Kislyak, 62, a large and jovial career diplomat with an easy smile and a fluent command of English, said he recognized that many Russian children adopted by American parents over the past two decades had been taken into loving families and given a safe and healthy start in life.
But he also pointed to a number of cases – statistical aberrations that have received extensive media coverage in Russia but little in the United States – that caused real alarm in Moscow and that he said testified to problems specific to the United States that Russia has grappled with in its efforts to ensure the well-being of its children.
Kislyak cited a recent situation in Florida, a notorious case in Virginia involving an adopted child whose Russian name – Dmitry Yakovlev – was attached to the adoption ban law, and questions about a facility for Russian orphans in Montana that has been the focus of intense Russian scrutiny in recent years.
“We called in advance, we tried in advance, we wanted to seek cooperation of the ranch,” Kislyak said, describing efforts by Russian officials to visit the Montana facility that has developed a reputation for helping Russian adoptees who have faced serious difficulties with their new American families.
“It was never shown to us,” he said. “The question I ask is, why? Is it a problem for them to allow the kids to meet with their compatriots? It’s amazing. And we certainly have a lot of doubts about what is happening” at the facility.
US media outlets have visited the ranch and have published glowing reports about the work with Russian orphans done there. But in the incident last year to which Kislyak referred, a group of Russian officials was turned away at the gates, an episode that got prominent coverage by Russian media.
[Contacted by RIA Novosti, the director of the Montana facility, Joyce Sterkel, took issue with Kislyak’s account. In a telephone interview, Sterkel said she was uneasy from the start about the Russian delegation’s visit. An official from the Russian consulate had recently visited the facility on two separate occasions and “we could see this was a political move,” she said, without elaborating. Sterkel said she proposed arranging the visit at another time and made clear to the Russian officials that they would not be permitted to enter the facility if they insisted on showing up at the time of their choosing.]
New Treaty ‘Wasn’t Working’
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the Montana ranch episode, it is precisely this kind of follow-up verification that a new US-Russian adoption treaty was supposed to foster for Russian officials who want to check on the welfare of Russian children adopted by US families.
That bilateral pact only went into effect on November 1 last year and optimists in both Russia and the United States had high hopes that it would resolve thorny adoption issues faced by both countries.
Unfortunately, said Kislyak of the treaty, “it wasn’t working. … We didn’t have one single good case to report that, yes, after the approval of this agreement we did see a new situation” in Russia’s ability to check on the welfare of Russian adoptees in the United States. “Nothing changed.”
He cited in particular the Florida case last December in which a US couple was charged with hitting and trying to strangle the six-year-old Russian boy they had adopted. A police report also cited evidence of ongoing physical abuse and possible sexual abuse.
Kislyak said that under the new adoption agreement the authorities in Florida should have ensured unimpeded access of Russian officials to the court proceedings.
“It was after the treaty came into force,” he stated. “And we were not welcome there. According to the agreement, government authorities would be trying to facilitate our access. But this didn’t happen.”
The case ultimately resulted in probation for the adoptive parents. The Russian boy, whom Russian officials still have not seen, was placed in foster care.
Part of the problem can be attributed to an apparent disconnect on the issue of citizenship. Kislyak said Russia considers its adoptees to be Russians with dual Russian-US citizenship, a status that typically entitles a country to have consular access to its citizens when they are on foreign soil.
The US position on this particular question is not clear. Officials from the State Department and the Homeland Security Department contacted about this issue this week offered contradictory guidance on how to interpret US law.
The text of the treaty stipulates that both Russia and the United States entered the agreement with the best interests of the adopted children at heart, but it does little to clarify the rules on this point.
‘Russian Roulette’ For Kids
“It feels like ‘Russian roulette’ for kids,” Kislyak said, describing the unhappiness that has been building for years among Russian legislators, policymakers and the general public about cases of Russian adoptee abuse in the United States, rare though they may be.
“We have a sense that maybe some of the parents might think: ‘if it’s a Russian kid, you can afford to dispense with it the moment you do not like it’,” the ambassador said.
Talking of the Montana facility, he added: “The whole idea of a ‘camp’ for kids that were adopted then at some point people lost their love for them and they sent them to a camp to grow up … it’s not what we approved by court decision in Russia.”
And referring to Dmitry Yakovlev (Chase Harrison, as he was renamed by his adoptive parents), the Russian adoptee toddler who died in Virginia after being forgotten for nine hours in a closed car on a hot summer’s day, Kislyak said the tragedy had been a source of profound national anguish in Russia.
“He wasn’t even recognized to be guilty,” Kislyak said of the boy’s adoptive father, Miles Harrison, who was acquitted in 2008 for the death.
“For the Russian mind, for the Russian soul, for the Russian legal system, it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
Specific US ‘Psychological Climate’
During the hour-long conversation in a reception room at the Russian embassy in Washington, Kislyak, the father of an adult daughter, seemed genuinely passionate about Russia’s obligation to protect its orphan children wherever they are and acknowledged many have been well treated in the United States.
He was visibly moved in recounting how, on expressing his gratitude to one American woman who adopted several Russian children she turned the tables and instead thanked him, saying that bringing those Russian children into her family was among the happiest experiences of her life.
But he insisted the Russian adoption ban was imposed to protect Russian children and said American parents had been singled out not for political reasons but because Russia had encountered concrete problems specifically in the United States that it did not face, for example, in Europe and elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t like to characterize American people as ‘different’ from others,” said Kislyak.
“But the system that works here, the legislation, sometimes the way Americans live is different. The level of violence, the number of weapons in free flow in the country, we hear each and every day, it’s also part of the psychological climate that is somewhat different.
“We also have our own share of problems with criminals and terrorists, but I think that overall the feeling of security for kids in Russia is still there,” he said.
Critics of the Russian adoption ban accuse Moscow of ruthlessly playing politics with the lives of its own children and of inflicting small-minded, mean-spirited pain on the many who do good in punishment for the transgressions of a very few.
Kislyak, echoing comments from other Russian officials and activists, countered however that math and morality must not be confused on this emotional topic and that while high-profile cases of adoptee abuse are well known, Russia has reason to question if other cases lurk below the opaque surface.
“We are not sure that we know all the statistics because nobody here in the States is collecting them and nobody even tries to inform us about this,” said Kislyak.
He declined to be drawn into the debate over specific number of abuse cases involving Russian orphans in the United States, saying: “Whatever we know is usually from reading the newspapers. … But we cannot be indifferent to what’s happening to these kids.”
“I’m not going into statistics, because each and every life of a kid is so valuable in its own right. Our problem was to see to it that each and every kid that goes to the US is happily adopted there. And it’s not the case.” He paused and repeated himself emphatically: “It is not the case.”
Broader Problems in Russia-US Relationship
Behind the weight of numbers and the inflamed passions over the adoption issue, Kislyak said, it demonstrated that there is a larger and deep-seated psychology at work in the relationship between Russia and the United States that often favors angry finger-pointing over calm discussion of problems.
“You Americans make a decision as to who’s right and who’s wrong in Russia,” asserted Kislyak, referring to the US Magnitsky Law – named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistle-blowing lawyer who died in prison – whose passage immediately preceded Russia’s decision to ban adoptions by US parents.
“You decide to announce who is guilty and to punish for things that you have no precise knowledge of and that people do not even care to look into. That is kind of an attempt to extend American legislation on Russian sovereign territory,” he said.
The Russian ambassador described the passage by the US Congress of the Magnitsky Law as intentionally and “absolutely offensive” to Russia – of demonstrating “ultimate disrespect, even unwillingness to look into matters of substance,” a lingering Cold War hangover.
And Kislyak pointed to the angry US reaction to Russia’s recent decision to suspend imports of American beef and port which contain a feed additive – ractopamine – that is forbidden in Russia as further evidence of what he said was Washington’s refusal to offer the basic respect that it demands for itself.
“We have had many long discussions with our American colleagues as to why we cannot accept” the US meat, Kislyak explained. “Our scientists say it’s dangerous, it’s a medicine. And it’s prohibited.”
In response, however, “we are told that material wasn’t harmful to Americans so it won’t be harmful to us,” he said, adding: “We do not buy this argument. And, by the way, we have our own laws.”
Ractopamine is permitted in trace amounts by international standards and in slightly larger amounts in the United States. It is however prohibited in Russia.
Despite tensions between Russia and the United States on the recent adoption ban and a number of other issues, Kislyak affirmed that Moscow has the desire and the hope for the bilateral relationship with Washington to improve – on surer footing and with a basic quotient of mutual respect.
“We would like to see indications that the president of the United States is interested in promoting normal, fruitful relations with us on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and our respective interests,” said Kislyak.
“We need to be more respectful of each other and care more for this relationship.”