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Russia’s 2012 crackdown worst since Soviet era -rights group.

  • Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a news conference in Moscow January 31, 2013. Human Rights Watch presented its annual report on Thursday. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a news conference in Moscow January 31, 2013. Human Rights Watch presented its annual …more 

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Authoritarianism increased last year inRussia to levels unseen since the Soviet era with a raft of harsh laws curbing political freedoms and harassment of opposition activists and critics, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The crackdown coincided with the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin and the appointment of his predecessor and protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister, according to the New York-based group.

“Since Putin’s return … not only has the tentative shift towards liberalization of the Medvedev era been totally reversed, but also authoritarianism in Russia has reached a level unknown in recent history,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the group’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow accompanying the publication of its annual report onhuman rights worldwide, Denber also criticized the government’s stance toward the West.

Since Putin started a six-year term in May, he has signed laws restricting protests, demanding foreign-funded non-governmental organizations register as “foreign agents,” and setting new rules on treason that critics say could place almost anyone who associates with foreigners at risk of prosecution.

Several opposition leaders and activists face potential prison terms if convicted on charges Putin’s critics say are trumped up. The president’s spokesman has denied the Kremlin uses courts and police to pressure critics.

“Measures to intimidate critics and restrict Russia’s vibrant civil society have reached unprecedented levels,” Hugh Williamson, director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Division, said in a statement.

“Pressure and reprisals against activists and non-governmental organizations need to stop.”

“This has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent history,” he said of 2012. The statement said the Kremlin “unleashed the worst political crackdown” since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

On Thursday evening, Moscow police dispersed protesters and detained about 30 activists who tried to demonstrate for the right to free assembly, which they say is routinely violated by the government.


Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said he had not read the report but that Russia would probably comment later and “show that the human rights situation in Russia is not the worst.”

He said the Russian ministry’s own annual reports have shown that “there are serious systemic problems in the sphere of human rights in the United States and many European Union countries.”

“Before you criticize others, you should look at yourself,” Lukashevich said at a weekly briefing.

The Human Rights Watch annual report also looked at developments in the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. It raised concerns about a possible return to non-democratic rule in some countries.

“The uncertainties of freedom are no reason to revert to the enforced predictability of authoritarian rule,” said the group’s director, Kenneth Roth. “The path ahead may be treacherous, but the alternative is to consign entire countries to a grim future of oppression.”

The report criticized Egypt’s new constitution, saying vague provisions on speech, religion, and the family had dangerous implications for women’s rights and the exercise of social freedoms protected under international law.

The constitution also reflects a seeming abandonment of efforts to exercise civilian control over the military, it added.

Elsewhere in the region, it said, Libya has become a “weak state” and the situation in Syria, where over 60,000 people have been killed in a nearly 2-year-long civil war, has deteriorated. Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council to overcome its impasse and refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Doina Chiacu)


By Alessandra Prentice | Reuters

Russia denies large Syria evacuation amid fighting.


BEIRUT (AP) — Russia acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that it pulled the families of its diplomats out of Syria long ago, and rejected suggestions that the recent evacuation of dozens of its citizens marks the start of a larger rescue effort.

Inside Syria, fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad raged around the capital Damascus and in the north of the country, killing at least 60 people, including six members of a single family who died in a government rocket attack, activists said.

Russia, a close Damascus ally for decades, has continued to be the main protector of the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, shielding it from U.N. sanctions over a bloody crackdown. Moscow also continued to provide Assad with weapons even as the uprising morphed into a civil war, adding to massive arsenals of Soviet and Russian weapons Damascus has received over previous decades.

Despite the escalating violence in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of the 77 Russian citizens who fled Syria a day earlier and returned to Moscow on two flights on Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria, mostly women married to Syrian men, contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving the country. He said no large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russians still in the country was immediately planned.

However, Lavrov for the first time mentioned that families of Russian diplomats “left long ago.” He did not provide further details, but said that the embassy in Damascus is functioning normally.

Russia has recently started to distance itself from Assad, and a top diplomat acknowledged last month that the rebels might win the civil war. But the evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Moscow’s waning confidence in the ability of Assad to hold onto power as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust the regime.

The fighting continued unabated inside Syria on Wednesday, with government airstrikes in the Damascus area and clashes and shelling in the southern province of Daraa and the central region of Homs, activists said.

In the northern province of Aleppo, a regime rocket hit the village of Abu Taltal, killing six members of a single family, including a man, his wife and their four children aged two to 11, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

Both groups rely on a network of activists on the ground and frequently report on government bombardment of rebel-dominated regions.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on the international community to declare the Syrian regime’s bombardment of its own citizens a war crime.

“There should be a clear signal to the Syrian regime that what they have been doing, bombarding cities by airplanes, is a war crime,” Davutoglu said. “The silence of the international community is killing people,” he added.

Once a Syrian ally, Turkey has become one of the regime’s harshest critics, and now shelters many of the opposition activists and defectors, including army officers, who have switched to the rebel side.

Syria’s conflict started 22 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly turned into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a brutal government crackdown.

Despite recent loses of army bases and large swathes of land in the north along the border with Turkey, the regime has managed to keep its grip on the country in large part due to Assad’s airpower.

Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that armed opposition groups appeared to have deliberately destroyed religious sites in mixed areas of northern Syria in the last two months of last year.

The New York-based group said investigations showed an armed opposition group destroyed two churches in the coastal region of Latakia and a Shiite Muslim place of worship in the northwestern province of Idlib. Evidence and witness testimony suggested that all three attacks took place after the areas fell to opposition control and government forces had left, the group said.

Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.

Mainly Sunni Islamic extremists have joined the rebels in their fight against Assad, including Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. says the group is linked to al-Qaida, and has declared it a terrorist organization.

Human Rights Watch previously documented the destruction and looting of a mosque in the town of Taftanaz in Idlib province by Syrian government forces.

“The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country, with tens of thousands killed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship. Leaders on both sides should send a message that those who attack these sites will be held accountable.”


Isachenkov reported from Moscow.



Russia moves to enact anti-gay law nationwide.

  • FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 file photo Russian gay right campaigner Pavel Samburov (center left) and five other gay rights activists kiss during a protest near the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament chamber, in Moscow, Russia. A controversial bill banning "homosexual propaganda" has been submitted to Russia's lower house of parliament for the first of three hearings Tuesday, Jan. 22. 2013. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, file)

    View PhotoAssociated Press/Misha Japaridze, file – FILE – In this Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 file photo Russian gay right campaigner Pavel Samburov (center left) and five other gay rights activists kiss during a protest …more 


MOSCOW (AP) — Kissing his boyfriend during a protest in front of Russia’s parliament earned Pavel Samburov 30 hours of detention and the equivalent of a $16 fine on a charge of “hooliganism.” But if a bill that comes up for a first vote later this month becomes law, such a public kiss could be defined as illegal “homosexual propaganda” and bring a fine of up to $16,000.

The legislation being pushed by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church would make it illegal nationwide to provide minors with information that is defined as “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism.” It includes a ban on holding public events that promote gay rights. St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian cities already have similar laws on their books.

The bill is part of an effort to promote traditional Russian values as opposed to Western liberalism, which the Kremlin and church see as corrupting Russian youth and by extension contributing to a wave of protest against President Vladimir Putin‘s rule.

Samburov describes the anti-gay bill as part of a Kremlin crackdown on minorities of any kind — political and religious as well as sexual — designed to divert public attention from growing discontent with Putin’s rule.

The lanky and longhaired Samburov is the founder of the Rainbow Association, which unites gay activists throughout Russia. The gay rights group has joined anti-Putin marches in Moscow over the past year, its rainbow flag waving along with those of other opposition groups.

Other laws that the Kremlin says are intended to protect young Russians have been hastily adopted in recent months, including some that allow banning and blocking web content and print publications that are deemed “extremist” or unfit for young audiences.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent pollster, says the anti-gay bill fits the “general logic” of a government intent on limiting various rights.

But in this case, the move has been met mostly with either indifference or open enthusiasm by average Russians. Levada polls conducted last year show that almost two thirds of Russians find homosexuality “morally unacceptable and worth condemning.” About half are against gay rallies and same-sex marriage; almost a third think homosexuality is the result of “a sickness or a psychological trauma,” the Levada surveys show.

Russia’s widespread hostility to homosexuality is shared by the political and religious elite.

Lawmakers have accused gays of decreasing Russia’s already low birth rates and said they should be barred from government jobs, undergo forced medical treatment or be exiled. Orthodox activists criticized U.S. company PepsiCo for using a “gay” rainbow on cartons of its dairy products. An executive with a government-run television network said in a nationally televised talk show that gays should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm and organs for transplants, while after death their hearts should be burned or buried.

The anti-gay sentiment was seen Sunday in Voronezh, a city south of Moscow, where a handful of gay activists protesting against the parliament bill were attacked by a much larger group of anti-gay activists who hit them with snowballs.

The gay rights protest that won Samburov a fine took place in December. Seconds after Samburov and his boyfriend kissed, militant activists with the Orthodox Church pelted them with eggs. Police intervened, rounding up the gay activists and keeping them for 30 hours first in a frozen van and then in an unheated detention center. The Orthodox activists were also rounded up, but were released much earlier.

Those behind the bill say minors need to be protected from “homosexual propaganda” because they are unable to evaluate the information critically. “This propaganda goes through the mass media and public events that propagate homosexuality as normal behavior,” the bill reads.

Cities started adopting anti-gay laws in 2006. Only one person has been prosecuted so far under a law specifically targeted at gays: Nikolai Alexeyev, a gay rights campaigner, was fined the equivalent of $160 after a one-man protest last summer in St. Petersburg.

In November, a St. Petersburg court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Trade Union of Russian Citizens, a small group of Orthodox conservatives and Putin loyalists, against pop star Madonna. The group sought $10.7 million in damages for what it says was “propaganda of perversion” when Madonna spoke up for gay rights during a show three months earlier.

The federal bill’s expected adoption comes 20 years after a Stalinist-era law punishing homosexuality with up to five years in prison was removed from Russia’s penal code as part of the democratic reforms that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Most of the other former Soviet republics also decriminalized homosexuality, and attitudes toward gays have become a litmus test of democratic freedoms. While gay pride parades are held in the three former Soviet Baltic states, all today members of the European Union, same-sex love remains a crime in authoritarian Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In Russia, gays have been whipsawed by official pressure and persistent homophobia. There are no reliable estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms. Even there, gays do not feel secure.

When a dozen masked men entered a Moscow night club during a “coming out party” that campaigner Samburov organized in October, he thought they were part of the show. But then one of the masked men yelled, “Have you ordered up a fight? Here you go!” The men overturned tables, smashed dishes and beat, kicked and sprayed mace at the five dozen men and women who had gathered at the gay-friendly Freedays club, Samburov and the club’s administration said.

Four club patrons were injured, including a young woman who got broken glass in her eye, police said. Although a police station was nearby, Samburov said, it took police officers half an hour to arrive. The attackers remain unidentified.

On the next day, an Orthodox priest said he regretted that his religious role had not allowed him to participate in the beating.

“Until this scum gets off of Russian land, I fully share the views of those who are trying to purge our motherland of it,” Rev. Sergiy Rybko was quoted as saying by the Orthodoxy and World online magazine. “We either become a tolerant Western state where everything is allowed — and lose our Christianity and moral foundations — or we will be a Christian people who live in our God-protected land in purity and godliness.”

In other parts of Russia, gays feel even less secure. Bagaudin Abduljalilov moved to Moscow from Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia where he says some gays have been beaten and had their hands cut off, sometimes by their own relatives, for bringing shame on their families.

“You don’t have any human rights down there,” he said. “Anything can be done to you with impunity.”

Shortly before moving to Moscow, Abduljalilov left Islam to become a Protestant Christian, but was expelled from a seminary after telling the dean he was gay. He also has had trouble finding a job as a television journalist because of discrimination against people from Dagestan.

“I love Russia, but I want another Russia,” said Abduljalilov, 30, who now works as a clerk. “It’s a pity I can’t spend my life on creative projects instead of banging my head against the wall and repeating, ‘I’m normal, I’m normal.’ “


By MANSUR MIROVALEV | Associated Press

Thousands march to protest Russia’s adoption ban.


MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of people marched through Moscow on Sunday to protest Russia’s new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, a far bigger number than expected in a sign that outrage over the ban has breathed some life into the dispirited anti-Kremlin opposition movement.

Shouting “shame on the scum,” protesters carried posters ofPresident Vladimir Putin and members of Russia’s parliament who overwhelmingly voted for the law last month. Up to 20,000 took part in the demonstration on a frigid, gray afternoon.

The adoption ban has stoked the anger of the same middle-class, urban professionals who swelled the protest ranks last winter, when more than 100,000 people turned out for rallies to demand free elections and an end to Putin’s 12 years in power. Since Putin began a third presidential term in May, the protests have flagged as the opposition leaders have struggled to provide direction and capitalize on the broad discontent.

Opponents of the adoption ban argue it victimizes children to make a political point. Eager to take advantage of this anger, the anti-Kremlin opposition has played the ban as further evidence that Putin and his parliament have lost the moral right to rule Russia.

The Kremlin, however, has used the adoption controversy to further its efforts to discredit the opposition as unpatriotic and in the pay of the Americans.

Sunday’s march may prove only a blip on what promises to be a long road for the protest movement, especially in the face of Kremlin efforts to stifle dissent. But it was a reunion of what has become known as Moscow’s creative class, whose sarcastic wit was once again on display on Sunday.

“Parliament deputies to orphanages, Putin to an old people’s home,” read one poster. Another showed Putin with the words “For a Russia without Herod.”

Putin’s critics have likened him to King Herod, who ruled at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth and who the Bible says ordered the massacre of Jewish children to avoid being supplanted by the newborn king of the Jews.

Russia’s adoption ban was retaliation for a new U.S. law targeting Russians accused of human rights abuses. It also addresses long-brewing resentment in Russia over the 60,000 Russian children who have been adopted by Americans in the past two decades, 19 of whom have died.

Cases of Russian children dying or suffering abuse at the hands of their American adoptive parents have been widely publicized in Russia, and the law banning adoptions was called the Dima Yakovlev bill after a toddler who died in 2008 when he was left in a car for hours in broiling heat.

“Yes, there are cases when they are abused and killed, but they are rare,” said Sergei Udaltsov, who heads a leftist opposition group. “Concrete measures should be taken (to punish those responsible), but our government decided to act differently and sacrifice children’s fates for its political ambitions.”

Those opposed to the adoption ban accuse Putin’s government of stoking anti-American sentiments in Russian society in an effort to solidify support among its base, the working-class Russians who live in small cities and towns and who get their news mainly from Kremlin-controlled television.

Putin has turned his back on the new Internet generation in Moscow and other large cities, exacerbating a divide in Russian society that seems likely only to deepen in coming years.

Protests against the adoption ban were held Sunday in a number of other Russian cities, but in most places only a few dozen people took part. In St. Petersburg, about 1,000 people turned out to show their opposition to the law and to Putin. Some held up a poster that read “Don’t play politics using children.”

French actor Gerard Depardieu, who took Russian citizenship this month and considers Putin a friend, spoke out against the opposition in an interview shown Sunday on Russian state television. “The opposition has no program, nothing at all,” the actor said, echoing Putin. “There are very smart people like (former world chess champion Garry) Kasparov, but that’s only good for chess. And that’s it. But politics are a lot more complicated.”

The adoption ban also revived anger over the December 2011 parliamentary election, which independent observers said was won by Putin’s party through widespread fraud. A column of marchers on Sunday held a banner calling for the State Duma, the elected lower house, to be disbanded.

“The Duma that now adopts these kinds of laws is illegitimate. It was formed with the theft of 100 million votes,” said opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former Duma member who lost his seat when independent members were ousted in 2007. “It doesn’t have the moral or political right to adopt laws for us. The disbanding of the Duma and the overturning of the law: That’s why people, including me, came out today.”

At the end of the protest, marchers dumped the posters of Putin and parliament members in an industrial-sized trash container that had “for disposal” scribbled on it.

Sunday’s protest had been authorized by the city government, which was one factor behind the high turnout. Several protesters were detained for what police said was violating public order, but all were later released. The Kremlin has sought to stifle dissent by imposing steep fines on those who take part in unauthorized protests and opening criminal investigations against popular protest leaders.

Just ahead of the weekend demonstration, Putin’s spokesman sought to ease anger over the adoption ban by announcing that some of the dozens of adoptions already under way could go forward, allowing children who have already bonded with American adoptive parents to leave the country.

UNICEF estimates there are about 740,000 children not in parental custody in Russia, while about 18,000 Russians are on the waiting list to adopt a child. Since the law banning American adoptions was passed, Russian political and religious leaders have been encouraging Russians to adopt more children.


By LYNN BERRY | Associated Press

Russians Protest Ban on Adoptions by Americans.

Russians protest adoption ban
Opposition leaders (first row, L-R) Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Ilya Yashin wait before taking part in a protest march in Moscow Jan. 13. Thousands of demonstrators gathered for a march in Moscow on Sunday to protest against a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, saying President Vladimir Putin‘s government had made orphans pawns in a political dispute. The placard (2nd L), displaying a portrait of Russia’s President Putin reads, “Shame on V.V. Putin! March against scoundrels.” (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Thousands of demonstrators gathered for a march in Moscow on Sunday to protest against a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, saying President Vladimir Putin’s governmenthad made orphans pawns in a political dispute.

Kremlin critics and other opponents of the ban converged on a central boulevard in freezing temperatures, some chanting “Shame!” and “Putin is a scoundrel!” or holding banners condemning lawmakers who backed the law prohibiting adoptions.

The ban has deepened a chill in Russian-American relations in the first year of Putin’s new term and compounded the bitterness between his government and opponents who have been mounting street protests for over a year.

The ban, which took effect on January 1, was rushed through parliament in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act–U.S. legislation that denies visas to Russians accused of human rights violations and freezes their assets in the United States.

Critics say the ban punishes Russian children instead of the U.S. government, decreasing their chances of getting out of a system of state homes plagued by overcrowding.

“Without adoption such children have no chance,” said Dmitry Belkov, an organizer who said his wife’s friend had adopted a child who had been taken away from his jailed mother.

“Watching her life, we can see that this law is a worse thing to do to those children than the treatment animals get in other countries.”

Russian lawmakers have said the adoption ban was justified by the deaths of 19 Russian-born children adopted by American parents in the past decade, and what they perceive as lenient treatment of those parents by U.S. courts and police.

The law is named after Dima Yakovlev, a boy who died after his adoptive American father left him locked in a sweltering car, but Kremlin critics call it the “scoundrels’ law.

Petition for Repeal
Protesters held banners saying “against the scoundrels’ law” and signs with photographs of some of the pro-Kremlin lawmakers who backed the bill, bearing captions such as “Shame!”

Organizers gathered signatures on a petition calling for the law’s repeal, saying it was in violation of Russia’s international obligations and took the private lives of individuals hostage to a political dispute between countries.

The protest march, which was permitted by authorities, followed the same route Kremlin opponents have trod in some of the demonstrations they have held since Putin’s party won December 2011 parliamentary election marred by fraud claims.

The route was fenced off by metal barriers manned at intervals by police.

Kremlin foes hope the adoption ban will help breathe new life into the protest movement, which has lost strength after failing to prevent Putin’s election to a six-year presidential term last March.

The ruling United Russia party, which submitted the law and which Putin uses as a source of support, has retaliated by branding opponents of the ban as unpatriotic.

Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children since the 1991 Soviet breakup, more than parents from any other nation, and the ban has dashed the hopes of hundreds of couples who were in the midst of the process when it took effect.

The issue has always been a sensitive one for Russians, particularly in government, playing into a rivalry that reaches back to the Cold War and a sense of humiliation at the idea that Russia might be unable to care for its own children.

When Putin signed the law on December 28, he also issued a decree aiming to improve conditions for orphaned children, and his ally, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, urged Russians to adopt in a Christmas message.


Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Myra MacDonald

© 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Kremlin: Adoption ban needed to create ‘Russia Without Orphans’.

Responding to a 20,000-strong protest in Moscow Sunday against the ban on US adoptions of Russian orphans, the Kremlin said that the law is part of a plan to improve Russian orphanages.

After some 20,000 Russians marched through the frigid streets of downtown Moscow Sunday to protest the Dima Yakovlev Act, which bans all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens, the Kremlin was moved to offer a rare public response.

In an interview with the outspokenly independent Dozhd Internet TV station, Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted that the Kremlin cares just as much about Russian orphans, but that the protesters had failed to understand the point of the adoption ban.

“It’s not just a ban, but an intention to create necessary conditions inside the country,” Mr. Peskov said.

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“People who express concerns about the fate of orphans are absolutely right…. We hope people who have filled the streets to speak their minds are informed about the leadership’s plans to adjust the adoption process and to initiative measures to ease orphaned children’s lives,” he added.

Protesters argue that the law was a hasty and vindictive response to the US Magnitsky Act, which makes Russian orphans into the prime victims of a US-Russia diplomatic spat.

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But supporters of the law insist it’s part of a broader plan to improve conditions in Russian orphanages, streamline the notoriously tough procedures for adoption, and increase material aid to prospective adoptive parents inside Russia.

And the Kremlin insists it is studying several programs, including one entitled “Russia Without Orphans,” penned by Kremlin human rights commissioner Pavel Astakhov, who was a major lobbying force for the ban.

“The queue of Russians willing to become foster parents keeps growing, while there are fewer foreigners. The moment of truth has arrived,” Mr. Astakhov told the official RIA-Novosti agency before the law was adopted last month.

“The important thing is not the response measures [to the Magnitsky Act] but the new Russian reality: Believe in yourself, rely on yourself. Support families and not businesses that exploit children,” he added.


Astakhov argues that all of Russia’s estimated 120,000 institutionalized children could be placed in foster homes, or adopted into Russian families, if regulations were eased and material incentives stepped up.

According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Russian government has made significant progress in improving conditions for the nation’s approximately 700,000 orphans, about 120,000 of whom currently live in state orphanages, since Mr. Putin identified the issue as a national priority in his 2006 state-of-the-nation address.

The percentage of orphans living in orphanages dropped from 23 percent in 2006 to 16.5 percent in 2009, the report said.

In the next few months, the State Duma is expected to pass legislation to help cut red tape in adoptions, boost the pensions given to disabled orphans, and help prospective foster and adoptive parents with larger subsidies and housing assistance.

On Monday, the State Duma declined to act on an Internet petition, signed by over 130,000 Russians, calling on lawmakers to cancel the new adoption ban. Although Russian law stipulates that any petition signed by more than 100,000 people must be treated as a legislative initiative, the head of the Duma’s Constitutional Committee, Vladimir Pligin, told journalists the law lacks an enabling clause and therefore can’t be carried out.


The key problem, critics argue, is that Russian authorities took firm action by enacting the ban last month, while all talk of helping orphans is relegated to a rosy but ambiguous future.

“I wish our authorities would have a different focus,” says Svetlana Pronina, co-chair of Child’s Right, a nationwide network of NGOs that work with children’s issues.

“It’s certainly worthwhile to ask why in most of Europe the proportion of orphans is no more than 0.6 percent of all children, whereas in Russia we have a stable orphan population of 2.6 percent? One could certainly support this slogan of ‘Russia Without Orphans.’ … But the main thrust of what they are proposing is that families who agree to adopt a child should be materially rewarded. This is not right; adoption should not be based on material factors,” she says.

“It’s difficult to find a proper family for a child. This involves a lot of hard work by caring individuals, and to make it some kind of mass production scheme is completely wrongheaded,” she adds.

Even some supporters of the adoption ban in principle say they’re leery of the present political direction. Nina Ostanina, a Communist Party deputy of the Duma who for many years thundered against the lack of controls on foreign adoptions, says she’s very worried about the new stress on easing regulations for Russians to adopt.

“I was raising the issue of foreign adoptions in the Duma for 10 years, and I think that gives me the right to say that this law was adopted in a cynical and hasty manner. It was done for political advantage, a purely speculative approach,” she says.

“My forecast is that once the wave of scandal dies down, the authorities will forget about all the promises they made to orphans,” she adds.


By Fred Weir | Christian Science Monitor

Russia insists it stands by Syria’s Assad, despite earlier comments.

The Russian deputy foreign minister said yesterday that the Syrian regime might fall – a bold declaration because Russia has been a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia today denied that it had changed its policy towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a day after a high-ranking Russian official admitted publicly for the first time that theSyrian government may fall.

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said today that Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in comments widely published yesterday that acknowledged the possible victory ofSyria‘s rebels, was only reiterating Russia’s official position of supporting a political end to the conflict, reports RIA Novosti.

…[O]n Friday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich was dismissive [of reports that Russia was backing away from Assad]. “I saw the US State Department spokeswoman citing [Bodganov] and praising how Moscow has finally woken up and is changing its position,” he said.

“But we never slept. And we never changed our position, and will not do so in the future,” Lukashevich said at a press briefing in Moscow.

RIA Novosti writes that the ministry said Mr. Bogdanov “has not made any specific statements for the press on Syria in recent days,” suggesting that his statements were not intended to reflect Russian policy.

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Russia has been a staunch supporter of Assad’s since the conflict began last year, and before yesterday had not countenanced the possibility of his fall. Bogdanov’s comments — made at a Kremlinhearing in which he addressed the ongoing conflict in Syria and its possible outcome, reports Reuters– thus marked what was seen as a significant shift.

“An opposition victory can’t be excluded, unfortunately, but it’s necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body. …

Bogdanov also reaffirmed Russia’s call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.

“The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable.”

Bogdanov’s comments were taken by many as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakening support for Assad. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she “commend[ed] the Russian Government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered.”

But Andrew Weiss, formerly of the US state and defense departments, wrote in a commentary for Foreign Policy that it was more important to “Watch what the Kremlin does, not what it says.” Mr. Weiss argues that there has been little evidence that Russia is backing away from Assad.

Indeed, the evidence runs in the opposite direction. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday said, “We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad. … All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor.” Other official spokesmen never miss an opportunity to condemn the militarization of the conflict, foreign interference in Syria’s domestic affairs, and even NATO‘s plan to provide Patriot missiles to Turkey to help guard its airspace against Syrian incursions. And bothTime magazine and ProPublica have reported recently on Syrian skullduggery to arrange continued imports of Russian attack helicopters and Russian-printed Syrian banknotes, which are helping keep the shaky Syrian economy afloat.

And the Guardian notes that while Assad may be on the back foot, he is still far from being toppled, even if Russia is starting to withdraw its support.

“Assad’s situation is very difficult,” said one senior Arab source in the region. “But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust.” …

What appears to have undergone a subtle change in recent weeks is the attitude of Russia and Iran. According to an observer closely familiar with recent high level diplomatic exchanges over Syria, Russia is said to be moving gradually towards accepting there may need to be a third alternative to the scenarios in which either Assad survives or is replaced by an unknown quantity involving jihadist groups.


By Arthur Bright | Christian Science Monitor

Russia to get tough on corruption, capital flight: Putin.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian authorities will crack down on corruption and the flight of capital from the country, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.

In his first state of the nation address since he started a six-year third term in May, Putin drew applause from his high-ranking audience when he said officials should be restricted by law from opening foreign bank accounts and owning securities abroad.

“Don’t applaud too soon – maybe you won’t like it,” he said, adding that the measures would apply to senior Kremlin, government and parliamentary officials.

Putin also said that businesses should not evade Russia’s laws by operating through offshore tax havens. Capital has been leaving Russia at a rate of $80 billion per year.

Nine out of 10 major deals completed by Russian companies, including those in which the state has a stake, were not subject to Russian regulation, Putin said.

“We need a whole system of measures to ‘de-offshore’ our economy,” Putin said, without announcing specific details.

As Putin spoke, state oil major Rosneft announced it had signed a deal to buy a one-half stake in oil firm TNK-BP from a quartet of Soviet-born tycoons for $28 billion in cash.

The transaction would complete a record-breaking $55 billion takeover of TNK-BP, Russia’s third-largest oil firm, which is domiciled in the British Virgin Islands.

Corruption has hobbled Russia’s post-Soviet resurgence and shown few signs of easing since Putin came to power.

(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Angus MacSwan)



Dozens of groups boycott Russia’s new NGOs law.

MOSCOW (AP) — Dozens of non-governmental organizations operating in Russia are refusing to comply with a new law restricting their activities as part of the Kremlin‘s crackdown on its critics.

The law, passed several months ago, obliged all NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in loosely defined political activities to register as “foreign agents” by Wednesday.

But Oleg Orlov, head of the prominent Memorial rights group, said his organization and dozens of other NGOs are boycotting the law because it would damage their credibility in Russia, where the word ‘foreign agent’ is synonymous to spy.

“By using this law the authorities are trying to brand us as foreign agents — this phrase has a particularly negative connotation in Russian,” Orlov said.

Among those refusing to comply with the new law are the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading rights watchdog; Golos, Russia’s only independent vote monitoring group; Agora, a prominent lawyers’ association; and scores of others.

Failure to comply with the law carries hefty fines and the suspension of the NGO’s license. But even if NGOs comply, their existence remains under threat: The law gives authorities the right to carry out continuous audits, which will virtually paralyze the activities of any organization, Orlov said.

President Vladimir Putin defended the new law on NGOs as necessary protection against foreign meddling in Russian political affairs. But Russian NGO leaders said they have to tap foreign funds because local business is simply afraid of bankrolling Kremlin critics.

On the eve of the law coming into force, state-owned Channel One aired a report blasting American non-profit foundations of bankrolling last winter’s anti-Putin rallies in Russia. Putin earlier accused the United States of fomenting the anti-government protests as a means of weakening the country.

Some foreign-funded NGOs are already feeling a popular backlash stemming from the new law.

When Memorial staff arrived at their building in central Moscow Wednesday, they found the slogan “Foreign Agent (Heart) USA” spray-painted on its facade. Elsewhere in Moscow, a pro-Kremlin youth group picketed outside the Russian office of Transparency International, with a banner calling on Transparency “to emerge from the shadows.”


By NATALIYA VASILYEVA | Associated Press

Germany and Russia clash on human rights, build trade.


MOSCOW (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel tookRussian President Vladimir Putin to task over a clamp-down on dissent and treatment of the Pussy Riot punk band when they held frosty talks on Friday.

But despite the chill descending on relations, they signed a host of economic deals underlining the importance of mutual trade whichPutin put at $72 billion in 2011, as well as Germany‘s dependence on Russia as an energy supplier.

Often looking uncomfortable as they sat together at a business forum in the Kremlin, Merkel and Putin tried to put on a show of unity. But they could not hide their differences over human rights and democracy at a news conference.

Merkel was particularly blunt in her criticism. She said she had expressed concern about the passage of laws that could be used to stifle dissent since Putin returned to the presidency in May after four years as prime minister.

“We spoke about the situation of civil society in Russia and I expressed my concern about plans for certain laws,” Merkel told the joint news conference with Putin in the Kremlin.

“I think we need to speak openly and honestly about these issues. This dialogue is a precondition for understanding each other and identifying the conflicts.”

Putin, who this year has faced the biggest protests since his political domination of the world’s largest country began in 2000, said Western powers did not fully understand Russia.

“As for political and ideological issues, we hear our partners. But they hear about what’s happening from very far away,” he said.

Merkel made clear she regarded as overly harsh the jailing of two women from the Pussy Riot band who staged an anti-Putin protest in February in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox church.

But the Kremlin chief said Pussy Riot had offended believers and accused one of the band of taking part in what he said was an anti-Semitic protest by another radical group called Voina which pretended to hang a Jew in a supermarket.

“We need to understand what sort of people we are dealing with. I don’t think that modern-day Germany should support anti-Semitism,” he said.

Pussy Riot quickly denied the allegation, saying the Voina protest was not anti-Semitic and was intended to draw attention to the abuse of migrant workers and homosexuals, and Putin’s comment quickly became the object of satire on social media.


Relations between Berlin and Moscow, long strained by memories of World War Two and ideological differences during the Cold War, warmed up after the collapse of communist rule and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But Putin, a German speaker who spent five years in Dresden for the KGB, has never had as strong a relationship with Merkel as with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.

Germany’s parliament last week expressed concern at the state of human rights in Russia and urged Merkel to raise the problems with Putin, in a resolution that contributed to the growing chill in relations.

Laws brought in since Putin was elected president for a six-year third term in March included legislation increasing control of the Internet and a law broadening the definition of treason which was enacted this week.

Putin defended the freedom of information in Russia and the independence of the judiciary. Dismissing any comparison with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin‘s show trials of political enemies, he said: “It’s not 1937 here.”

But despite their differences, Germany and Russia have managed to keep business ties on track. Germany’s dependence on Russia for 40 percent of its gas and 30 percent of its oil also means Merkel must also be mindful of the damage any criticism of Russia over human rights could do to German business interests.

Berlin is wary of angering Moscow because it could provoke it into reducing energy supplies to Europe in retaliation, as has happened before during Russian price disputes with its neighbor Ukraine.

“We want Russia to succeed … Our ideas don’t always coincide, but what matters is that we listen to each other,” Merkel said, underlining that more than 6,000 German firms operate in Russia.

She said Germany needed Russia for raw materials such as gas and oil, while Moscow needed Berlin to help in modernization, infrastructure and health care.

Deals concluded during the visit included Russian Railways signing a letter of intent to buy nearly 700 locomotives from Germany’s Siemens for about 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion).

The European Union has challenged the pricing policy of state energy export monopoly Gazprom, and opened an investigation into whether this policy is fair. Putin complained about this again at the news conference but there appeared to be no new developments in the dispute.

(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin and Nastassia Astrasheusskaya and Andreas Rinke in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Jon Boyle and Robin Pomeroy)


By Douglas Busvine and Timothy Heritage | Reuters

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