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Published: Sunday, 1/13/2013

COMMENTARY

Russian orphans pay price for Putin's new cold war

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST

Many Russians are celebrating New Year's Eve today. By the Julian calendar -- still recognized by the Orthodox Church -- it falls on Jan. 13.

Not celebrating are Russian orphans, particularly those with life-threatening illnesses. Many of them will die this year from lack of adequate care after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill that bans U.S. adoptions of Russian children.

There are at least 740,000 orphaned or abandoned children in Russia, by U.N. estimates. Many of them die of illness or commit suicide, news of which sometimes trickles even into the Kremlin-controlled media. About 1 percent of those children get adopted annually. About half of the adopted children used to go to foreign homes, mostly American.

Enter Mr. Putin, who signed the bill Jan. 1 -- as a New Year gift to Russia's corrupt bureaucracy.

Before he did that, he announced at a press conference in Moscow that the parliament had passed the ban in response to recent U.S. legislation -- the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 it considers anti-Russian.

Named after a Russian lawyer who exposed a $230 million embezzlement by the Russian establishment and subsequently died in custody, it prohibits corrupt bureaucrats from getting U.S. visas and freezes their U.S. accounts.

Mr. Putin has purposefully cast the ban as a foreign policy matter.

But for him, it is not. And his sycophants were fully aware of that when they introduced the bill. 

His signing of the much publicized ban is first and foremost a signal to the systemically corrupt Russian bureaucracy that he will stop at nothing to shield them as long as they stay loyal to him. During the news conference, he has even appealed to the Russian bureaucrats and members of the parliament he controls to keep their money in Russia-based banks.

The reason why Mr. Putin went to such lengths to show loyalty to the Russian bureaucracy -- specifically to its most corrupt upper-echelon "siloviki," or current or former members of Russia's military and police -- is his waning popularity with Russia's urban middle class who have staged mass protests against Mr. Putin's ruling party across the nation.

The protests are clearly a nuisance to him because they can be used by the less satisfied faction of the Russia's ruling elite to unseat him. Such coups are a tradition in Russia's authoritarian history of the past several centuries.   

The ban comes on the coattails of a flurry of Russian legislative acts that created the foundation for at least a partial rebuilding of the Iron Curtain -- from tougher control over the media to outlawing public organizations that receive money from foreign sources. It is quite a feasible task in Mr. Putin's Russia, where the parliament, the judiciary, and media are controlled by the Kremlin -- in other words by Mr. Putin.

It took Russia less than 20 years to complete a U-turn from its brief course toward integration with the civilized world begun by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.

Legally, the undoing of Russia's attempt at a civilized society began in October, 1993.

That's when the late Russian President Boris Yeltisn used tanks to fire at the parliament building in order to subdue the pro-Soviet old timers who controlled the parliament. Having favored tanks over the democratic process, he then rewrote the constitution, giving the president prerogatives unparalleled in the West.

The rest followed, with the Russian orphans falling victim to the process.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com, or 419-724-6089


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