Russia's WTO Entry a Chance to Push Human Rights

It is difficult not to be excited by the ongoing protest movement in Russia, which has seen the largest public demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union—a serious challenge Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy and credibility. But what can the international community provide, apart from rhetorical support, to embrace and further the cause of Russia’s democratic reform?

“The best way the rest of the world can help us is by fighting corruption,” said Ilya Ponomarev, a prominent left-wing opposition politician, when I spoke to him in London last week.

Corruption is one of the Russian Federation’s most endemic problems. Russia is currently rated 143 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and anti-corruption reforms promised by the Putin-Medvedev tandem have done little to challenge the culture of corruption and impunity that emanates from the top down.

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Growing public frustration with the status quo heavily informed the context of the explosion of anger at December’s blatantly fixed Duma elections. It’s no accident that one of the foremost opposition leaders and mobilizers of the street protests has been the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.

It is commonly assumed that the international community can do little to substantively support democratic opposition movements. Yet in the case of Russia, the confluence of the current protest movement and Russia’s impending accession to the World Trade Organization presents the US in particular with a powerful opportunity to bolster the pro-democracy opposition by challenging the Kremlin on its two greatest weaknesses: human rights and corruption.

The Obama administration is pushing Congress to lower trade barriers with Russia prior to Russia’s entry into the WTO later this year. This entails repealing the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had tied “most favored nation” trading status (now known in the US as “permanent normal trade relations”) to a country’s observance of free emigration. Congress should instead replace Jackson-Vanik with legislation that ties “most favored nation” trading status to specific concessions on political rights and corruption: for instance, the release of political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and independent audits of state-run companies like Gazprom.

Such a measure can aid the opposition in two important ways: first, by securing substantive concessions on political liberties, and second, by helping to chip away at the mortar that binds mid-level functionaries and elites to the state. As Mr. Ponomarev told me, “If you can remove the incentives for the middle-tier people to remain within the power structure, it will all begin to unravel.”

This approach would complement the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, pending US legislation that targets the culture of impunity in Russia. This bill, which has gained bipartisan support in the Senate, imposes asset freezes and travel bans on the individuals connected to the imprisonment and murder of the whistleblower attorney Sergei Magnitsky, as well as any individuals deemed to have participated in human rights abuses across the globe.

This type of legislation targets impunity, and if expanded has the potential to disrupt the bargain between the Kremlin and Russian elites that sustains the current system: do as you’re told, don’t cause trouble, and you can hide your money in a Swiss bank account and send your kids to boarding school in England.

The Magnitsky bill has compelled a reluctant State Department to preemptively impose visa bans on the individuals named in the proposed legislation, and reportedly induced the UK Foreign Office to follow suit. Legislation and resolutions proposing similar measures have been introduced in Canada and Europe, and this week the UK House of Commons will debate a motion to spearhead similar legislation in the UK.

Sceptics would argue that legislation challenging impunity or tying specific actions to favored trade status will only push the Kremlin farther away from the international fold. Yet the ongoing domestic challenge to Russia’s electoral authoritarianism makes this an ideal time to push the Kremlin on human rights and corruption issues.

The ongoing street protests in reaction to Putin’s seemingly inevitable election represent a significant challenge to his credibility. Even if he manages to quell the protests, analysts predict that long-postponed budgetary reforms will incite a second wave of protests—this time socially and economically driven—which could prove even more of a challenge to the Kremlin than the current movement.

Opposition activists agree: any measures that highlight impunity and corruption in Russia threaten the status quo and aid the pro-democracy cause. The US should take advantage of the current opportunity to help bolster this movement.

Julia Pettengill is the co-chair of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.


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