Linking Jackson-Vanik to Magnitsky bill ‘a mistake’?

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.

“Yet the virtue of the Magnitsky Act is that it rejects the fiction…..that Russia is a normalizing country,” Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker:

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 

*Stephen Sestanovich is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Mali turmoil a ‘setback for African democracy’

Al Qaeda-linked fighters today seized several towns in northern Mali in a marked escalation of the Islamist insurgency.

The Obama administration’s senior official for Africa today dismissed calls for the United States to take the lead in an international mission to counter a rebellion by nomadic Tuaregs and Islamist militants in the West African state of Mali.

Several protesters were killed or injured this week when rebels fired on hundreds of people demonstrating against the murder of a local official by militants. 

Several multinational organizations — including the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — are discussing a peacekeeping mission in Mali. The country’s fragile democracy fell to a military coup in March, and Islamist insurgents took advantage of the resulting turmoil to declare an Islamic secessionist state in the country’s northern regions.

“We are coordinating closely with our mission in the United Nations to press the African Union and ECOWAS to define a clear mission for their proposed ECOWAS peacekeeping mission in Mali,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson today told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. “That said, we think an ECOWAS mission to militarily retake the north is ill-advised and not feasible.”

According to The Hill blog, “the Obama administration is under pressure to restore democracy and territorial integrity to the country, which has turned into a hotbed for Islamic insurgents linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

“No matter how difficult this matter is to address,” said panel Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), “there are too many people affected for the United States to fail to provide leadership in the effort to solve this political-social crisis.”

The military coup and subsequent division of Mali are a “grave setback” to African democracy, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Dave Peterson, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee:

Mali was among the very first African countries to lead the second wave of independence in 1991 when a popular uprising and the military’s refusal to fire on protesters led to the downfall of the longtime dictator, Moussa Traore, followed by a sovereign national conference and free and fair elections in 1992.

Although one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali remained at the forefront of democratic reforms in the region, pioneering a vibrant independent broadcast media and civil society, adopting democratic innovations such as the public “Democratic Questioning Space” for elected officials, implementing one of the first decentralization reforms in Africa, and leading ECOWAS and the AU in promoting democratic government throughout the continent. In 2007, aided by modest NED support, Mali hosted the world conference of the Community of Democracies. Mali seemed to disprove the contention that only rich countries can be free, and its relative stability for two decades served as a touchstone for the slow but steady democratic progress we have seen throughout West Africa.

This is not to say that Malian democracy was perfect. Participation in elections has rarely been above 30 percent. Corruption has grown steadily as a problem, undermining faith in democratic government. Terrorist activity and discontent among the Tuareg have repeatedly plagued Mali. Yet, those of us working to support democratic development in Africa were caught off-guard by the sudden reversal of democracy’s fortunes in Mali. The coup was a huge blow to democracy, although the resolute opposition of ECOWAS and the international community has been encouraging.

Unfortunately, the coup leaders seem to be controlling the agenda, and the capacity of ECOWAS to intervene in a forceful way seems limited. Even worse is the secession of the north. Not only has the sovereignty of Mali been abandoned, but the new rulers don’t even pretend to respect democracy.

According to Sanda Ould Boumama, Ansar Dine’s spokesman in Timbuktu, “Sharia has to be applied whether the people like it or not, we will enforce it. We are not asking anybody’s opinion. We are not democrats. We are servants of Allah, who demands Sharia.”

In recent years NED has supported programs by the International Republican Institute to strengthen Mali’s decentralization and by the National Democratic Institute to support the Malian legislature. USAID funding for NDI to assist the electoral process has been suspended.

From 2005-20101, NDI worked with Malian political parties and legislative caucuses to enhance the capacity of the legislature to reform policy targeting the needs of citizens and enabling it to perform its oversight role. NDI regarded Mali as an important test-case for West Africa to demonstrate that the democratic process could be used to ensure that a country’s natural wealth delivers benefits for its citizens.

NDI’s current USAID-funded project to support transparent and credible elections in 2012 was placed on hold as the U.S. government revised its assistance programs in Mali2. IRI focused its NED-funded activities in Mali from 2005 to 2009 on decentralization efforts by building local governance capacity and strengthening political parties in rural communes. NED also supported the Center for the Research and Study of Democracy and Economic and Social Development (CERDES) in 1992, and the Comite d’Action pour les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme (CADEF), strengthening women’s political participation, from 1993 to 2000. Finally, NED supported the Communities of Democracy meeting in Bamako in 2007.

Nevertheless, based on our assessment that Mali was a reasonably stable and functioning democracy, until recently the country has not been a high priority given the vast needs across the region. Obviously, this is no longer the case, and with the blessing of the NED’s Board of Directors, it will be necessary to shift funding from programs budgeted for other parts of West Africa to address Mali’s new situation.

Mr. Chairman, the Endowment does not design projects here in Washington and attempt to implement them on the ground. Rather, we provide funding for proposals that are not formally solicited that we receive from indigenous NGOs. We are already receiving proposals, and I expect staff to travel to Mali in the coming months to assess the situation and meet with potential partners. Indeed, the outlines of our strategy for Mali are already beginning to take shape: first, we will support the restoration of democratic legitimacy in the south, and second, we will seek ways to help Malians engage with the north to promote reconciliation and ultimately reunification and democracy. At this stage it is difficult to estimate our budget for Mali, but I hope it would amount to at least several hundred thousand dollars by next year.

The transitional government in Mali has agreed to hold elections within a year, and my colleagues at NDI who had been working on the elections before the coup suggest that it would be better for these to happen within the next six months rather than at the end of that timeframe. Past elections have been troubled by boycotts, fraud, and poor management, and NED will seek to support domestic election observation efforts and other transparency initiatives. Disaffection with politicians and corruption has contributed to low voter turnout, and NED will also support projects that provide voter education, advocate accountability and promote popular participation. Malians were shocked and confused by the sudden disappearance of their democracy, and NED will seek to support efforts to rebuild their understanding and commitment to democratic values. Public opinion polling and focus groups that can probe what happened to Malian citizens’ commitment to democracy could serve as a basis for designing such civic education programs. Mali has had a vibrant women’s movement; NED will particularly target programs mobilizing women as voters and political leaders. Mali has had nearly 200 radio stations, 8 daily newspapers and 40 periodicals, but recent attacks against the press are troubling; NED will seek to address this problem. Human rights abuses have also reportedly escalated, and NED will consider support to Mali’s well-established human rights movement for human rights monitoring, education and advocacy. Finally, given the apparent problems with the Malian military, notwithstanding the assistance it has received from the US military, NED will consider innovative proposals from civil society organizations assisting with security sector reform.

In the northern part of the country, as has been noted, the new rulers have little regard for democracy. Yet the Tuareg, who have led the rebellion, represent an ethnic minority in the north; and even among the Tuareg, the separatist agenda has a questionable level of support and the radical Islamic agenda of Ansar al Dine and AQIM even less. Few of the rebels seem to have any experience with governance and are more comfortable with their nomadic traditions than the settled culture of towns and villages.

Although the presence of civil society and independent media is thinner in the north than the south, NED will seek to support those organizations and radio stations that do exist in the north on a range of initiatives. Our experience in Somalia, for example, has found considerable traction supporting radio broadcasts promoting democratic values. Projects strengthening the capacity of traditional leaders and other community authorities vis-a-vis extremists such as Al Shabab in Somalia have also had some success.

Hundreds of thousands of Malians are fleeing the north due to drought, locusts, and the repression and bizarre edicts of the rebels. Projects helping these internally displaced persons can protect their rights in the vulnerable conditions in which they now find themselves, enable them to participate in democratic processes such as elections, as well as lay the foundations for their eventual return home.

The Malian crisis may be more effectively resolved through a battle for hearts and minds than through military confrontation. NED is not so presumptuous as to pretend that our modest resources alone can fix what ails the country. We trust that other international donors will also become more involved. The crisis in Mali is unlikely to be resolved easily; it may take many years. But as I hope I have convinced you this morning, much can be done to address the many challenges faced by its people. There is already much in recent Malian history and institutions that can provide the basis for democratic renewal.

The above is a lightly edited version of the testimony of Dave Peterson, Senior Director for the Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy, to the Committee on House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.

‘Cold War liberal solidarity’ can combat post-Communist oligarchies’ threat to democracy

The “post-Communist oligarchies” are presenting an “unprecedented” threat to liberal democracy, says a prominent Western intellectual.

Russia and China provide a critical challenge to the democratic West because both countries “are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible,” said Michael Ignatieff (left), a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.

“It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve towards democratic liberty,” Ignatieff said in the Isaiah Berlin Lecture delivered in Riga, Latvia, on 6 June.

“History has no libretto,” he said, noting that prior to the rise of twentieth century communism and fascism, “liberals still thought of their creed as being the wave of the future and thought of history as the story of liberty.”

The contest between liberal democracy and neo-authoritarianism is likely to shape the global politics in the 21st century “much as the struggle with Communism and fascism shaped the 20th,” writes Chrystia Freeland.

And that struggle provides vital lessons for “liberal solidarity in a global age,” said Ignatieff.

“Cold War liberalism remains a useable past, even though the Cold War is over and no one would ever want to resurrect it or return global society to the hair-trigger tensions of the era or its bloody proxy wars.”


THE BARBARIANS are gone. The Soviet occupation of the captive nations is a distant memory and for twenty years now, the Baltic peoples have been resuming their Hanseatic history as free cities and their interwar history as free states.

Now you face a new challenge, not just your own but the challenge of every liberal society: how to conserve liberal freedoms once your citizens feel safe enough to take them for granted. The barbarians are no longer there to remind you how precious freedom is. People’s memories of the barbarians will grow dim and your people, like people everywhere, may find the liberal state tedious.

This is a challenge not just for newly free states, but for old established ones. The liberal task – deliberation, compromise, respecting rights and due process – often seems uninspiring. Marx was not wrong when he scorned the ‘parliamentary cretinism’ of liberal democracies. For five years, in my political career, I was one of the cretins, after all. There is no glorious finality, no communal effervescence, to ennoble life in a liberal state. Bismarck said that politics was like sausage making: everyone needs sausage but no one wants to see sausage being made. The work feeds our bodies but does not nourish our souls and liberal citizens tire of it. They no longer show up to the meetings or to the voting booths. What people find boring, they are not likely to defend with any passion and they might throw away from carelessness.

When you look beyond your borders, you can rejoice that you are in a good neighborhood for the first time in your lives. The Poles and the Czechs are free and you live across the Baltic from some of the most successful liberal societies the world has ever seen.

But there is a new arrival in the neighborhood, and no one can be sure that this neighbor will respect your fences and your freedoms.

The Putin regime is something new in the annals of political science: a tyranny that ratifies itself with rigged elections; a market society in which everything is for sale, but no one’s property is safe; a petro-state that leaves millions so poor they remember Soviet times with nostalgia; a state ruled by a former secret police agent whose only contact with a liberal Western state was as a spy and whose understanding of power was learned in an interrogation rooms of a police state.

This makes for a less than promising neighbor. Putin is not a barbarian of old, since he does not express explicit designs on your territory or your freedom; he offers no ideology for export, no radiant tomorrow, no goal other than power for himself; but all the same, he is not happy and because he is not happy, you are not secure. He knows that millions of his citizens no longer thank him for the security his regime has provided. They have tasted some freedom and they both resent his authoritarianism and worry that their own economic freedoms are insecure under his rule.

As a liberal state on the frontier of this new form in political science, you are in the front line of liberal democracy’s decisive new encounter – no longer with totalitarianism of the left or the right, which defined liberalism throughout the 20th century, but now with new regimes that have no historical precedent: post-Communist oligarchies – Russia and China – that have no ideology other than enrichment; regimes that are recalcitrant to the global order; predatory on their own society and dependent for their stability, not on institutions, since there are none that are independent of the ruling elite, but on growth itself, on the capacity of the economic machine to distribute enough riches to enough people; regimes whose legitimacy is akin to that of a bicyclist on a bicycle. As long as they keep pedaling, they keep moving; if they stop, they fall off.

In the case of Russia, the wealth is precarious: natural resource income that leaves the regime dependent upon the ups and downs of the commodity price cycle; a petro-state vulnerable to Dutch disease, corruption and increasing inequality; a political order without checks and balances, without the rule of law, and without even an orderly democratic mechanism for leadership transition.

In the case of China, the wealth is based on control of cheap labour supply chains in global manufacturing and the steady growth of a domestic consumer market measured in the hundreds of millions. In both Russia and China, rising real incomes have replaced ideology as the key to post-Communist legitimacy. Yet wealth is an unstable source of legitimacy. Since both regimes are predatory, wealth is highly concentrated in those with access to power. The strategic question is whether Russia and China are stable. Ostentatious wealth, built on corruption, power concentrated in few hands and unconstrained by institutions, is not a recipe for stability at home or peaceful relations abroad.

Both China and Russia are societies in which power is stacked: political power confers economic, social and cultural power. They remain single party states, emptied of the ideology of communism, yet imbued with the same Leninist attitude to power. Leninism dies hard, but sheer ruthlessness is a brittle basis for legitimacy.

Both Russia and China are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible.

The liberal democratic creed is that freedom is indivisible. What this means is the interdependence of political and economic liberty, the interdependence of majority rule and minority rights, the interconnection between rule of law and democratic sovereignty.

China and Russia both pose a strategic challenge to this belief, and the shape of the twenty first century will be determined by which side is right.

If liberal democracy is premissed on the idea that freedom to own and acquire pre-supposes and requires the freedom to act, to believe and to know, the liberal ideal also pre-supposes a further proposition: that the truth is one, can be known and can be shared. People will disagree about what facts mean, and this is the life-blood of democratic argument, but equally democracy presumes that they can agree on what the facts are. Indeed democratic politics is impossible without shared agreement on the facts.

The political legitimacy of liberal societies, therefore, is not just procedural: the observance of electoral rules and legal due process. Legitimacy is substantive: it flows from collective democratic acknowledgment of facts and a refusal to disavow difficult truths. Legitimate regimes are regimes that face facts. Regimes become illegitimate when they deny important facts staring them in the face.

Regime legitimacy – and the social solidarity that flows from it – depends on a certain shared public truthfulness about the past. Neither China nor Russia has made peace with their Communist past. Societies that suppress secrets are not stable. In both Russia and China, the regimes have quietly put Communism aside as a public belief system, but they have never faced up to Communist legacies of terror, starvation and persecution. Regimes that have not allowed truth about their past to surface will continue to be dependent for their stability on repression. In both societies, there remains a lurking nostalgia for terror. Mao continues to glower down over Tiananmen Square. Uncle Joe’s picture is still carried in parades in Moscow.

So a critical question for liberal society becomes how do we define ourselves in relation to these new forms of domination – Russian and Chinese – how do we understand them and live in peace beside them?

We should be asking this question, but instead we leave the answer instead to commerce and capitalism, trusting that as we create contracts and economic relationships, the fundamental question of how liberal societies should relate to non-liberal ones will resolve itself.

It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve towards democratic liberty. Once market freedoms are introduced, once a middle class is created, an unstoppable demand arises for press freedom, for political pluralism, for rule of law and for an independent judiciary, that is, for all the institutional accouterments of liberal society. It is not unreasonable to think this, and there are millions of Russians and Chinese who passionately believe it and seek it, and if they have need of our help, we should give it. But we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society, any more than it made sense to predict in 1950, say, that both Chinese and Russian totalitarianism were doomed to crumble.

To say that history has no libretto is not a counsel of pessimism. [Isaiah] Berlin’s historical humility was always paired with a strong belief in the efficacy of freedom. He objected to the Marxist theory of history precisely because of its disdain for the power of human agency. Leadership, he knew, could bend the arc of history, if not always towards justice, at least away from tyranny. While he admired leadership in the exercise of power – Churchill and Roosevelt – his deepest sympathies were reserved for those who used leadership to undermine power. He revered Anna Akhmatova because she refused to bow to Stalin. The poet’s heroic silence was not in vain: she and Pasternak, Brodsky and Sinyavsky, created an unbroken chain of refusal that, in its capacity to inspire, leached moral legitimacy away from a regime that held all the power, but possessed nothing of truth or justice.

If this is true, then in our dealings with the Chinese and Russians, it matters to give help, both private and public, to those who campaign in both countries for the rule of law, not the rule of men, who want poor villagers to be fairly compensated for expropriations of their land, who want ordinary people to have the right to read anything they want on the Internet, who want free and fair elections and an end to the rule of billionaire oligarchs. History is not necessarily on the side of these liberal values, but fighting for them remains a moral duty. If a blind lawyer in China is fighting against forced sterilisation of women, if others are fighting against evictions of peasants, then we can give them the encouragement of knowing that they are not alone and that we will not remain silent if they are persecuted. If Berlin did whatever he could to secure honor for Pasternak, Akhmatova and Brodsky, then in our generation, we should do the same to their successors. We do this because history is on nobody’s side, and freedom needs all the help it can.

To do this is liberal solidarity in a global age, and when the Chinese and Russians tell us it is an internal matter, we should tell them that this too was Stalin and Mao’s excuse.

Nothing is gained by pretending that Russia and China are not the chief strategic threat to the moral and political commitments of liberal democracies. We should understand this threat for what it is. Equally nothing is gained by treating this as an encounter between religions, resolvable only by conversion or war. We are faced with political opponents, and if our belief in freedom is grounded in the facts, we will win.

Cold War liberalism remains a useable past, even though the Cold War is over and no one would ever want to resurrect it or return global society to the hair-trigger tensions of the era or its bloody proxy wars. It remains a useable past because there is a temperament we have need of: humility about history, firmness to stand against wrong and the openness to engage and learn from those we oppose. Berlin incarnated this temperament, and living within its disciplines, would stand us in good stead as we face challenges from new forms of oppression that he never lived to see.

This is an extract from the Isaiah Berlin Lecture delivered in Riga, Latvia, on 6 June.