Although it has never been difficult to distinguish between genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime and the bogus “opposition” tasked with imitating political pluralism, some episodes have been especially indicative. One watershed was the 2008 Georgia war, when many supposed opposition leaders supported Putin’s actions and even urged him to be more aggressive (among the few Russian politicians who spoke out against the invasion was Mikhail Kasyanov).
Another litmus test—perhaps an even more important one—is the Magnitsky Act, a US Congressional initiative which seeks to impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Russian officials involved in violating human rights. The bipartisan measure, which this week passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a unanimous vote (after clearing the counterpart committee in the House—also unanimously—on June 7th), is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who was arrested, tortured, and died in prison after uncovering a $230 million tax fraud scheme involving government officials. As well as those implicated in Magnitsky’s persecution and death, the bill covers officials responsible for any “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”, which include the “freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”
The Kremlin’s reaction has been predictable—though still astounding in its defense of murderers, swindlers, and thieves. But, for many observers, the behavior of the official “opposition” was even more eye-opening. Ivan Melnikov, the deputy speaker of the Duma and one of the leaders of the Communist Party, joined the Kremlin in defending abusers, accusing the United States of “creating an instrument…to harass Russian citizens who, for one reason or another, are not liked by the American authorities.” On the substance of the case, Melnikov asserted that “Magnitsky is not the end-all of this world”. (After all, what is the death of one man to a party that had killed millions—and not even apologized for it?) Another “opposition” heavyweight, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultranationalist LDPR party, went even further, accusing Russian citizens who support Western visa sanctions on Putin regime officials of “betraying the national interests of Russia.” Russia’s national interests have been defined in many ways, but the ability of crooks and murderers to vacation and keep their money abroad has, until now, never been one of them.
Among those whom the Kremlin and its “opposition” puppets presumably count as traitors is Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia’s prime minister from 2000 to 2004, and co-chairman of the recently established Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party. During his visit to Washington this week—both in his public appearances, and in his meetings with high-ranking US legislators, including Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Roger Wicker, and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Jim McGovern (respectively, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and co-chair of the Human Rights Commission)—Kasyanov urged Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act without delay. “This is not a law against the Russian Federation or Russian citizens, this is a law against officials who violate human rights on a daily basis,” stressed the former prime minister, “This is a pro-Russian law which will work in the interests of the Russian Federation.” In Kasyanov’s view—shared by other Kremlin opponents, including Boris Nemtsov, as well as by leading representatives of Russia’s civil society—the prospect of travel restrictions and financial sanctions will not only deter officials from violating Moscow’s international obligations on human rights, but also weaken Putin’s authoritarian “power vertical,” as many lower-level bureaucrats will realize that not even the Kremlin can shield them from consequences for their unlawful actions. Kasyanov noted that, in accordance with Russia’s OSCE commitments, “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern…and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State.”
Russian citizens, it appears, are more inclined to agree with Kasyanov than with those in the Kremlin who claim to speak on their behalf. According to this week’s poll by the Levada Center, those in favor of Western visa sanctions for Russian human rights abusers outnumber those against by 36 percent to 18 (45 percent have no firm opinion—not surprising, given that 44 percent of respondents have never heard of Magnitsky, a result of the Kremlin’s control over the national media). Meanwhile, in July—even before the US Congress completes passage of the Magnitsky bill—the European Parliament will begin work on its own legislation. As emphasized by Kristiina Ojuland, the Parliament’s special rapporteur on the Magnitsky case, who was also in Washington this week, the European Union and the United States must act in close cooperation. After all, they are both interested in future strategic partnership with a democratic Russia.