While Vladimir Putin's latest policy absurdity -- the ban on adoptions of Russian babies by well-meaning Americans -- might seem a tragedy for the country's tens of thousands of lonely orphans, take heart: comedy is but Russian foreign policy plus time. No doubt the international community will one day look back with amusement on the erratic behavior of Russia, the town drunk of the global village: a Kremlin statement on Jan. 11 suggested that adoptions from Russia to the United States will, actually, remain valid until 2014. Meanwhile, one can only marvel at the growing list of Mother Russia's bizarre dealings with the outside world.
If it's Tuesday it's the Kremlin threatening its neighbors with turning off the gas tap or with outright nuclear annihilation -- if their policies don't agree with those emanating from Moscow. In August 2009, the Russian Ministry of Justice added Winnie-the-Pooh to its list of banned "extremist" material. And in early January, President Putin personally granted French tax exile and sometime actor Gérard Depardieu a Russian passport. (Straight comedy: Brigitte Bardot threatened to follow Depardieu's example if the French government doesn't prevent the euthanasia of two TB-ridden elephants in a circus in Lyons.)
If the bear-hug between the rather diminutive Putin and Depardieu, whose physique actually is bear-like these days, seemed something of a mismatch, it made one wonder about an even greater discrepancy: between Putin's seeming eagerness to adopt the airplane-soiling enfant terrible of French cinema, and Russia's abrupt embargo on the adoption of its toddlers by American citizens.
On the face of it, the Dima Yakovlev Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, is designed to prevent abuse: it is named after a Russian-born child who died on a sweltering day in 2008 when his adoptive father forgot him in the car instead of taking him to day care. The baby -- known to his American parents as Chase Harrison -- is one of 19 Russian-born children to die of neglect at the hands of their adoptive parents in the United States over the last two decades, offering certain Russians the opportunity to portray Americans as child abusers.
Putting that figure in perspective are two others: more than 60,000 Russian children were adopted by Americans over that period, providing some statistical context to the abuse claim; as does the death toll of Russian children adopted in-country over the same period, which stood at over 1,200.
The Dima Yakovlev Act is not about abusive adoptions -- although it taps into a Russian view of the United States as the acme of decadence -- as much as about retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in mid-December. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after blowing the whistle on $230 million worth of tax fraud perpetrated by Russian officials. The Magnitsky Act prohibited those officials deemed responsible for the lawyer's death from entering the United States.
The main victims of the Magnitsky/Yakovlev double-act are the approximately 740,000 children in state care in Russia: only 18,000 Russian families are currently in the process of adopting a child. Until the embargo went into effect, about 3,000 Russian children a year found new families in the United States -- the main foreign destination for such orphans. According to State Department figures, U.S. families adopted a total of 233,934 children from foreign countries from 1999 to 2011. Here's a rundown of the top 20 countries of origin, which together represent about 95 percent of all foreign adoptions into the United States from 1999 to 2011:
1. China - 66,630 (29.7 percent)
2. Russia - 45,112 (19.2 percent)
3. Guatemala - 29.731 (12.7 percent)
4. South Korea - 18,604 (7.9 percent)
5. Ethiopia - 11,524 (4.9 percent)
6. Ukraine - 8,889 (3.8 percent)
7. Kazakhstan - 6,421 (2.7 percent)
8. Vietnam - 5,578 (2.4 percent)
9. India - 4,979 (2.1 percent)
10. Colombia - 3,568 (1.5 percent)
11. Philippines - 3,005 (1.3 percent)
12. Romania - 2,945 (1.2 percent)
13. Haiti - 2,740 (1.2 percent)
14. Cambodia - 2,355 (1.0 percent)
15. Taiwan - 1,884 (0.8 percent)
16. Liberia - 1,436 (0.6 percent)
17. Bulgaria - 1,416 (0.6 percent)
18. Poland - 1,057 (0.4 percent)
19. Mexico - 1,023 (0.4 percent)
20. Nigeria - 962 (0.4 percent)
This overview is slightly skewed because Washington is currently not processing adoption requests from Cambodia, Guatemala, and Vietnam. And of course, the exit of Russia from the pack will contribute to a different top 20 over the next couple of years.
So, which countries will American couples looking to adopt abroad turn to now?