The virtue of the Magnitsky Act, approved by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this week, is that “it rejects the fiction that Russia is a normalizing country,” says a prominent analyst.
Named in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer killed in prison after revealing an extensive corruption scheme involving police, bankers, judges, and leading officials, the bill is a bipartisan initiative to impose visa and banking restrictions on senior Russian officials implicated in human rights violations.
“If these corrupt officials can no longer keep their money safely in the West and travel to the West, this will seriously disrupt their whole way of life,” said William Browder, president of the Hermitage Capital investment firm that engaged Magnitsky.
The measure “may not stop some of the worst abuses in Russia, but for the first time, it challenges the absolute impunity with which the Putin regime can act,” he told a Capitol Hill meeting (above) organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative and Freedom House.
Certain foreign leaders and diplomats are “terrified of Putin,” Browder said, while the Kremlin’s “bullying” behavior has intimidated foreign ministries, including the Department of State.
But other observers suggest that Putin attracts more ridicule than awe:
Among American officials there is growing disappointment and irritation with Mr Putin, both for his standoffish attitude (they were flabbergasted when he failed to attend the G8 summit and a bilateral meeting with Mr Obama last month) and for his apparent unwillingness—or inability—to deliver. He may be waiting to see who wins America’s presidential election in November. But many in Washington think he is “full of bluster, and would like to be a big player at the table”, says Stephen Sestanovich* of the Council on Foreign Relations, but that “he isn’t really up to it.”
Russia reacted with predictable indignation to the Senate vote.
“The effect on our relations will be extremely negative,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. “We are not only deeply sorry but outraged that – despite common sense and all signals Moscow has sent and keeps sending about the counterproductive nature of such steps – work on the ‘Magnitsky law’ continues.”
But Moscow is engaging in Soviet-style theatrics, said opposition activist Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister during Putin’s first term. “All those harsh reactions, that is some kind of Soviet-style reaction, not understanding how nations interact in the 21st century,” Kasyanov told the Capitol Hill forum. “When you poke the bear, it gets angry,” said Browder. “I’m very confident that this law will shake the Russian regime right down to the core. The main objective of the Putin regime is to steal as much money from the state as possible. The Magnitsky case shows that in prime colors, but there are thousands of similar examples.”
The Obama administration is opposed to the bill, reportedly because of the damage it will cause to the reset of US-Russian relations.
Russia’s government remains, in substantial part, an oil-and-gas-bloated criminal enterprise. The country’s politics look brittle; thousands continue with remarkable resiliency to protest Putin’s legitimacy. Obama’s willingness to swallow his own voice on human-rights issues, for the sake of foreign-policy pragmatism, has been a disappointment of his Presidency. Here is a way for Congress to speak for him. It should.
Russian officials’ announcement that the Magnitsky Act would be highest priority in Putin’s meeting with President Obama at the G20 summit “was a startling admission for the Putin regime to make,” writes Garry Kasparov, the leader of the pro-democracy United Civil Front.
I have long promoted the idea of going after the money and travel privileges of the Kremlin loyalists who keep Mr. Putin’s criminal regime operational The surprise was his in effect confessing how afraid of the act he is. He clearly felt it necessary to publicly reassure his rank and file that he would fight to protect their ill-gotten wealth and lifestyles.
He takes issue with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Russian opposition is in favor of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment:
This is a half-truth. We of the opposition are hardly of like mind on everything, but nearly all of us agree that it is important to replace the obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment with the Magnitsky Act instead of simply repealing it. The objective of such a law is to deter further human-rights violations in Russia by altering the climate of impunity.
Linking Russia’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik to passage of the Magnitsky bill is a mistake, as “linkage only buries the message that Congress seeks to send,” says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:
First, linkage will ensure that Washington gets no political credit for finally doing the right thing on Jackson-Vanik. To be sure, the credit would be modest, given Russian frustration that they have remained under Jackson-Vanik’s sanction for more than a decade after they did what it asked them to do. But better late than never.
Second, linking the Magnitsky bill to Jackson-Vanik graduation will wholly obscure Congress’s message to the Russian government. The Russians will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over how the Russian legal system was shabbily and corruptly manipulated to kill one of its fellow citizens. They will instead see the bill as reflecting what they believe to be a deep-seated anti-Russia sentiment on the Hill: the Americans had to give up Jackson-Vanik, so they came up with another piece of legislation to beat Russia with.
“Putin’s Kremlin has used the West – eager for engagement and a policy ‘reset’ with Russia – to legitimize its authoritarian rule and to provide opportunities for its venal cronies’ integration into Western society,” writes Lilia Shevtsova, a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
“Indeed, by using the West to launder their dirty money, Putin and his cohorts have, in a way, avenged the Soviet Union’s collapse by undermining the West’s principles and discrediting liberal democracy in the eyes of the Russian population,” she argues.