Standing Up to Russia's 'Herod's Law'

On January 1st, “Herod’s Law,” which bans all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens, officially came into force. Ignoring protests from opposition and civil society leaders—and, more generally, from everyone with a conscience—Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has avenged corrupt officials and human rights violators who will be banned from traveling to the US under America’s Magnitsky Act by denying thousands of orphaned Russian children a second chance in life.

But just pushing the law through, it appears, was not enough. Now, Putin wants to make sure that other members of his ruling elite share responsibility for this moral crime.

The Kremlin is demanding that regional legislatures across Russia pass resolutions in support of “Herod’s Law”—a legally meaningless but politically symbolic gesture. Last week, it was the turn of the Pskov Regional Assembly—one of only three regional legislatures in Russia where the pro-democracy opposition is represented (the other two are in St. Petersburg and Karelia). In Pskov, democrats have a sole lawmaker, Lev Shlosberg of Yabloko party. But, contrary to an old Russian proverb, even one soldier can sometimes make a battle.

“This is a cannibalistic, skinflint, shameful and foul law,” Shlosberg announced at the session of the Assembly. “This [resolution] is a proposal for the Pskov Regional Assembly to join this infamy, and for every lawmaker to personally sign this infamy with his or her name.” “Just as [the law’s authors] have used ill children as cover in their fight against … a foreign state, they now want to use regional legislatures as cover,” he continued. Reminding his colleagues that “Herod’s Law” violates Russia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Shlosberg emphasized that “everyone who votes for this law becomes guilty of a potential death of a child, whom the Russian [healthcare] system could not cure.” “I call on my colleagues: on those who can vote against, to vote against … on those who cannot vote against, to abstain from participating in an infamy,” pleaded the opposition lawmaker. “Because participation in an infamy is for life; no one will ever be able to correct it.”

Shlosberg’s emotional eight-minute speech had a remarkable effect. With 23 votes (out of 44 legislators) needed for passage, the resolution in support of “Herod’s Law” garnered only 21 votes—and failed. Six lawmakers voted against; the rest did not vote at all.

There are, of course, no miracles in Putin’s Russia. After a closed-door grilling by the Kremlin-appointed regional governor (who personally supervised the vote), United Russia deputies claimed that the electronic voting system had malfunctioned, and demanded a revote—which resulted in 26 “ayes” for the resolution. Twenty-six Pskov lawmakers personally “signed this infamy with their names,” as 420 members of the Russian State Duma and 143 members of the Federation Council had done before them.

Just as Shlosberg suggested, this record will be for life: nothing will erase the anti-orphan vote from their biographies. Regardless of political affiliation, the supporters of “Herod’s Law” have forfeited any moral right to participate in public life. And no excuses—to the tune of “we were coerced”—will ever change this fact.

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