The Kremlin’s Mr. Surkov Comes to Washington

Two weeks after a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that would ban Russian human rights violators from entering the United States, one of the prime candidates for the blacklist hastily flew into Washington. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s longtime deputy chief of staff and one of the main architects of its authoritarian policies, arrived in DC on Monday—ostensibly to discuss the business of the US-Russia working group on civil society, cochaired from the American side by Michael McFaul, President Obama’s senior Russia adviser and soon-to-be ambassador in Moscow. Discussions were conducted in secrecy: no official comments or press releases were issued by either side, before or after the meeting. According to the sources of Moscow’s New Times magazine, the real reason for Mr. Surkov’s visit was the Kremlin’s concern over the Senate initiative.

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 (S.1039) proposes to revoke US visa privileges from Russian officials “responsible for … gross violations of human rights committed against individuals seeking … to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” Mr. Surkov, whose Kremlin portfolio for the last twelve years—the years of the dismantling of Russia’s nascent democracy—has included dealing with the media, political parties, and elections, fits the description perfectly. Considered the regime’s chief political enforcer, Mr. Surkov has given off-the-record instructions about which politicians can and cannot appear on television, which rallies can and cannot be held in Moscow, which parties can and cannot be registered, what results must be achieved in elections. According to a report by OSCE and Council of Europe observers, the 2007 parliamentary election was characterized by “the extensive use of administrative resources … on behalf of United Russia”—Vladimir Putin’s party—which constituted “an abuse of power and a clear violation of international commitments and standards.”

Mr. Surkov is the founding father of Nashi (“Ours”), the pro-Kremlin youth group that he described as the “combat detachment of our political system,” and that has frequently harassed journalists, opposition supporters, and civil society activists. At a recent meeting with Nashi commissars, Mr. Surkov instructed them to “train their muscles” ahead of elections which, he stressed, “must be won by [Dmitri] Medvedev, [Vladimir] Putin and United Russia.” All of this, needless to say, stands in violation of Russia’s commitments under the OSCE Copenhagen Document, which calls for “a clear separation between the State and political parties” and requires “political campaigning to be conducted in a fair and free atmosphere in which neither administrative action, violence nor intimidation bars the parties and the candidates from freely presenting their views.” “The name of Vladislav Surkov is associated with many negative tendencies … in the last few years: the curtailing of press freedom, the liquidation of the competitive political system … the deliberate construction of barriers to the development of civil society,” wrote some of Russia’s leading human rights activists in 2009, protesting against Mr. Surkov’s appointment to the US-Russia group.

As of this week, S.1039 stands with seventeen cosponsors: nine Democrats, seven Republicans, one Independent. The bill has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where its consideration is due to begin later this year. Mr. Surkov is right to be worried. His latest trip to Washington may well have been his last.

Photo credit: www. kremlin.ru

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