On Thursday morning, by a unanimous voice vote, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a bill that offers a rare example of congressional bipartisanship. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, cosponsored by leading Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress, deals with an issue that the current and previous administrations were too timid (or too calculating) to address seriously: human rights violations in Russia. The bill drew the Kremlin’s attention as no other US congressional initiative has in years—perhaps not since the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked US-Soviet trade to the freedom of emigration. Hours after his inauguration on May 7th, Russia’s reinstated president, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree tasking his diplomats with “preventing the introduction of unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the United States of America against Russian legal entities and individuals”—a thinly veiled reference to the Magnitsky Act.
Sergei Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer who died in custody in 2009 after reportedly being tortured and denied access to medical care. A year earlier, he uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme—the largest known in Russian history—which involved the previously seized assets of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund he was representing. Magnitsky’s testimony implicated several law enforcement officials. The result was his own arrest. Almost three years after Magnitsky’s death, not one of the perpetrators has been punished: on the contrary, a number of interior ministry officials involved in his case have received awards and promotions. Indeed, the most prominent criminal investigation in Russia involving Magnitsky has been, astonishingly, the ongoing posthumous case against him.
The Magnitsky Act, which now advances to the House floor, proposes a targeted visa ban and asset freeze against individuals “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky,” as well as for any “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Russia. It is in defense of these fine citizens that Putin has mobilized the full force of his diplomacy. Both Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Kremlin’s top foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, have called the bill “anti-Russian,” and threatened unspecified retaliation. Presumably, all those US officials with retirement savings in Russian banks have been put on notice.
US legislators have rightly listened to other voices from Russia: those of pro-democracy opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Boris Vishnevsky, renowned film director Eldar Ryazanov, veteran human rights campaigners Lyudmila Alekseeva and Lev Ponomarev, and other civil society figures who cosigned an open letter urging Congress to pass the bill “without delay” and emphasizing that “persecutions will not cease as long as those who are responsible for … the crackdown on Russian civil society remain unpunished.” A poll conducted last year by the independent Levada Center showed that 44 percent of Russians supported the idea of Western sanctions over the Magnitsky case (13 percent were opposed; the rest had no firm opinion).
There is good reason for Putin and his entourage to be worried. It is hardly a secret that many Russian officials, while governing in the style of Zimbabwe or Belarus, have themselves—when it came to bank deposits, vacation homes, or schooling for their children—opted for such destinations as England, Switzerland, or the United States. A significant share of the ill-gotten gains from Russia’s “market” of corruption—estimated by Transparency International at $300 billion a year—ends up in the Western banking system. A realization that “business as usual” could begin to have personalconsequences may be, for now, the only disincentive for Russian officials when it comes to corrupt deals, politically motivated persecutions, dispersals of peaceful protests, or electoral fraud. The Kremlin, it seems, is especially worried about the bill’s Section 4, which mentions violations of “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” This bill—and counterpart initiatives in the parliaments of Canada and several states of the European Union—would introduce a measure of accountability otherwise unachievable in today’s Russia, with its tame legislature and rubber-stamp judiciary. The idea that not even the Kremlin’s protection and oil money can guarantee access to the West and its financial system would send a chill down Putin’s autocratic “power vertical.”
The Magnitsky Act gives Washington a rare opportunity to speak with a single voice and with unquestioned moral clarity, while—in addition—safeguarding its own system against foreign corruption. The tens of thousands of Russians who continue to come out to the streets to protest authoritarianism and demand democratic reforms have shown beyond doubt that Putin’s regime and Russia are two different things. The Magnitsky Act will serve the long-term interests of both the US and the Russian people, while sending a clear message to crooks and violators that they are no longer welcome.