It is easy for us here in the United States in these fevered anti-Russian times to casually dismiss the belief that Donald Trump discussed adoption with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg. It is also equally easy to laugh off the purported real purpose of the meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya with Donald Trump, Jr.- the so-called smoking gun bomb shell revelation and proof of Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Those who do so are arguing or, more rightfully, laughing off an issue that is very important to Russia and the Russian people. As of 2011, according to the United Nations, there were over 650,000 Russian children officially designated as “orphans.” Of that number, greater than 70% are “social orphans,” or those who have a living parent in Russia. They have given the child up to an orphanage, or simply abandoned them, for a variety of reasons- behavioral problems or physical disabilities, or they simply lack the resources to care for the child. Some are even abandoned by the parents in the hospital after giving birth.
Many who were lucky enough to find adoptive parents in the United States or Europe have discovered that their children suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome on some level. Personally, I know a couple who adopted a Russian boy when he was three who suffered from the malady and is doing well today after much therapy and intervention. There are examples from Russia of children being born with club feet given up for adoption, only to find American parents willing to medically treat the deformity.
Unlike the United States, foster care in Russia is not a popular option. As a point of comparison, on any given day in the US, there are about 428,000 children under the age of 16 in foster homes. In Russia, that number is 4,600. To state that there is a problem in Russia so easily and casually dismissed here in the United States is an understatement. For many orphans in Russia, the only way out is to turn 17.
Thus, it is likewise rather callous to easily dismiss the possibility that Trump with Putin and Trump, Jr. with Veselnitskaya actually discussed adoption and the crisis in Russia. That dismissive attitude is born of ignorance.
From most reports, even though housed in Soviet-era buildings, the actual orphanages are well-run by the state. But, it is also an expensive endeavor and the more they turn out these children to adoptive parents, the less the financial strain. It also allows the reallocation of resources to deal with the more troublesome cases of Russian orphans.
Against this backdrop, the United States passed the Magnitsky Act which targeted sanctions on alleged human rights abusers connected in the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky after he helped uncover a $230 million tax fraud scheme in Russia. After being arrested, he died in jail which resulted in international condemnation and passage of the Act here in the United States.
In response, Russia passed the Dima Yakovlev Law which essentially banned the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. From 1998 to 2011, over 100,000 Russian orphans had found homes here in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, this law was not passed at the instigation of Vladimir Putin. It was a reaction by the Russian Duma (their legislature) to the death of Chase Harrison, formerly known as Dima Yakovlev. He was a young child mistakenly left in a hot, parked car.
At the time, Putin had been under intense pressure from the public and some elites to do something about the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Stories swirled in the Russian press of children being adopted and then abused by American parents. Some stories were conspiratorial in nature suggesting that the children were adopted so as to harvest their organs, or that they were sold into sex slavery. In the lead-up to passage of the Magnitsky Act, these salacious stories were a source of contention between Russia and the United States. The Chase Harrison death gave the Russian Duma the excuse they needed to halt the adoptions- including many that were almost finalized. From a political standpoint, it would have been foolish for Putin to veto the law. In effect, this blockade against adoption became a leverage tool for the Russian government to use against the Magnitsky Act.
The Russian lawyer in question- Natalia Veselnitskaya- although a real estate lawyer in Moscow who has also defended some Russian oligarchs in criminal and civil cases, lives and breathes repeal of the Magnitsky Act. She along with her interpreter- Anatoli Samochnorov- founded a non-profit registered in Delaware whose goal was to lobby for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. They also hired Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet counterintelligence agent, now American citizen.
Given her statements to the press since this meeting came to light, she seems to be genuinely confused. Although she stated that Trump, Jr., Kushner and possibly Manafort pushed her for information on Clinton- the purported reason for the meeting according to the Goldstone e-mail- she had none to offer and she believed the meeting to be about repeal of the Magnitsky Act. It is very possible the offer of information on Clinton was the hook that made this meeting a reality.
A few days later, she shows up at a House Subcommittee hearing involving US policy towards Putin’s Russia, particularly those sanctions issued under the Magnitsky Act. The day before the meeting, she was in Washington’s Newseum to screen a movie against William Browder, a venture capitalist with business in Russia and a victim of the $230 million tax fraud scheme. It was he who was most vocal in getting the Magnitsky Act passed.
Without getting into the details of the Magnitsky Act’s passage, suffice to say it was somewhat controversial from the beginning. Due to a public relations full court press by Russia in general, and Veselnitskaya in particular there are now questions surrounding the motive of Browder and some factual inaccuracies which may, if true, undercut the whole rationale for the Act in the first place.
Given her investment in the issue from lobbying, appearing at Congressional hearings, formation of a non-profit organization, etc., it is clear that this- not the delivery of information about Clinton- is what motivated her attendance at the meeting with Trump, Jr. et. al. Whether she is a witting or unwitting spokesman for the Kremlin is really inconsequential. She likely viewed this as an opportunity to plead her case with the next potential US President.
It is easy for the ignorant to dismiss the adoption angle in this whole episode because they do not see it from the Russian standpoint where an orphan crisis obviously exists. As some operators of orphanages in Russia have noted, the Magnitsky Act had the effect of chilling adoptions by German and Irish potential parents also.
In a poll taken in Russia, 56% of respondents agreed with Putin’s actions. Some of that is attributable to Putin’s own words where he portrays the US as evil and decadent leading many to believe that American parents abuse Russian adopted children. In actuality, more adopted children have died in Russia than in the United States over a comparable time period. From an economic standpoint, the ban on adoptions costs Russia about $50,000 per adopted child not counting the savings in getting these children out of orphanages.
The next time someone dismisses the discussion of adoption, keep in mind the 650,000 orphans in Russia many of whom will be kicked to the streets at the age of 17. Think of the domestic crisis this presents in Russia. Think of how this affects US-Russian relations. It easy to connect non-existent dots without context. The easy way out is to dismiss it with “Yeah…right” comments. What may prompt those comments on this side of the Atlantic may be something quite different on the other side of the Atlantic.