The Magnitsky Act, passed this week by the U.S. Congress, imposes visa and financial restrictions on Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights violations, thus giving Russian citizens a tool for defending themselves against the authoritarian system. According to IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, this is the most pro-Russian law ever adopted in a Western country.
Politicians are often accused of indifference, cynicism, a lack of principles and an adherence to realpolitik. These accusations, alas, are often accurate. But sometimes this “system” can be breached.
On December 6th, the U.S. Senate adopted H.R. 6156, previously passed by the House of Representatives, on a vote of 92–4. The bill simultaneously repeals the cold war-era trade-restricting Jackson-Vanik Amendment and introduces targeted visa and financial sanctions on corrupt officials and human rights violators from Russia. This law is dedicated to the memory of Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow attorney who died in police custody in 2009 after being denied medical care and, according to members of the Presidential Human Rights Council, beaten by rubber truncheons. His “guilt” consisted of uncovering a $230 million tax fraud that involved law enforcement officials (it was the same officials who subsequently placed him under arrest.)
In accordance with the ruling group’s “one hand washing the other” principle, those implicated in the “Magnitsky affair” were not only spared punishment, but were actually rewarded; Interior Ministry officials linked to the attorney’s persecution and death received awards and career promotions. As for the prosecutors, they continue with the posthumous investigation of Magnitsky himself, in an attempt to “transfer” the accusations onto him.
Fortunately, Russia does not exist in a vacuum, and Russian citizens still have recourse to international mechanisms. The Moscow Document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) affirms that “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law … are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”
Nothing will strike at the heart of a corrupt and authoritarian system as strongly as shutting the doors for thieves and human rights violators to their beloved West.
The international mechanism is also the right one on substance. It is not a secret that many Russian “statesmen” who prefer the style of Belarus or Zimbabwe at home, are opting to transfer their ill-gotten gains to the West – the same destination they send their children for schooling and buy their houses and yachts. As Garry Kasparov famously put it, they are trying to “rule like Stalin and live like [billionaire Roman] Abramovich.” Needless to say, they are doing so with the silent approval from the Leader – this, indeed, is the aim of Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical”, from top to bottom. Thus, nothing will strike at the heart of a corrupt and authoritarian system as strongly as shutting the doors (both physical and financial) for thieves and human rights violators to their beloved West.
Whereas the Jackson-Vanik Amendment “punished” an entire country for the actions of the regime (trade restrictions formally applied to the USSR, and then to Russia as a state), the Magnitsky Act introduces targeted sanctions against thieves, murderers, and other human rights violators. To be precise, against individuals “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky”, as well as for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Russia, which include “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” These are the people the Kremlin’s diplomats are so devotedly defending. Not that that is much of a surprise.
With this law Russian citizens, for the first time in years, acquire a tool for defending themselves against those who violate their rights on a daily basis.
The adoption of the Magnitsky Act (the President has already stated his intention to sign it) is a rare victory for principle over expediency; a victory that happened despite a coordinated pressure from the executive (with Ambassador Michael McFaul categorically stating that the administration rejects any linkage between trade and human rights), Kremlin lobbyists, and business interests. As Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) said before the vote, the legislative branch “has lived up to its own best tradition of standing in solidarity with those struggling for freedom and justice.”
The adoption of the Magnitsky Act is, above all, a victory for Russian society. Not only because the measure was backed by Russia’s protest leaders, civil society representatives and cultural figures, as well as by 44 percent of Russians (according to the polls). With this law Russian citizens, for the first time in years, acquire a tool for defending themselves against those who violate their rights and freedoms and use the Russian budget as their own pocket on a daily basis. Impunity for such people is over – for now, on the international level; and in due time, undoubtedly, at home.