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The Really Smart Sanctions

Of all the types of international sanctions, the ones that work best are travel restrictions on officials of corrupt or authoritarian regimes. Such targeted sanctions do not punish populations; they do not incentivize corruption and black markets (like the infamous “Oil for Food” program); and they do not allow autocrats to blame economic hardship on “foreign oppressors.” Preventing a Robert Mugabe from buying tailor-made suits on Savile Row would hardly arouse indignation among his country’s impoverished famers.

For over a decade, personal sanctions were applied to the regime in Belarus, which, until Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, was known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, responsible for suppressing the media, falsifying elections, violating the right to peaceful assembly and, allegedly, ordering murders of political opponents, was subjected to EU and U.S. travel bans, as were his top officials, including those involved in election fraud. Iran, Venezuela, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia were among the few countries where Mr. Lukashenko could pay his “presidential visits.” In one particularly humiliating incident, his deputy chief of staff, Natalia Petkevich, had her credit card cancelled while trying to shop at a fashionable New York store (visits to the United Nations are excepted from travel bans). Some time ago, Brussels and Washington began hinting to Minsk about adding a carrot to their stick—suspending the travel ban on condition of reciprocal steps in the area of human rights. Coincidence or not, but in 2008-2009 Mr. Lukashenko pardoned several political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, as well as U.S. lawyer Emmanuel Zeltser, held in Belarus custody. In 2009, for the first time in 10 years, the president of Belarus was able to travel to the European Union, visiting Italy and Lithuania. Opposition leaders found this distasteful and offensive—and understandably so. Yet Mr. Kozulin and others remain free. And the few pardons extracted from Mr. Lukashenko are more than can be said for the “liberal” Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Top Kremlin officials were never subjected to the type of restrictions imposed on Belarus. Nor, in the current spirit of “reset”, are such actions likely to be forthcoming. Yet not all in Washington have chosen to close their eyes on Russia’s internal repression. Earlier this week a senior Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting her “to immediately cancel and permanently withdraw the U.S visa privileges” for 60 Russian government officials linked to the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Mr. Magnitsky, held in custody for nearly a year, was repeatedly refused medical treatment and died last November in the infirmary of Matrosskaya Tishina Prison. A Moscow judge who rejected Mr. Magnitsky’s complaint about the lack of medical treatment four days before his death, is included in the Senator’s list.

Visa bans on Russian officials implicated in human rights violations, corruption, and other illegal activities could go a long way in forcing a change in behavior. Indeed, in the case of Russia such sanctions would be much more effective than in the case of Belarus, whose leaders do not own villas in Sardinia or bank accounts in England. The only travel ban imposed on a Russian official has had a visible effect. In 2006 and 2007, in direct violation of Moscow’s commitments under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, meaning “Ours”, unleashed a campaign of harassment against British Ambassador Tony Brenton and Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand. In response, at the request of Estonia’s government, the EU Schengen Agreement states have issued a visa ban against Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko, now a minister in Mr. Putin’s government. Mr. Yakemenko’s legal appeals have so far proved fruitless. And while Nashi continues to harass political opponents, no foreign diplomat has been targeted since 2007.

The travel ban on Kremlin officials could include hundreds of names. For instance, while Mr. Yakemenko has been blacklisted, Nashi founding father Vladislav Surkov, the president’s deputy chief of staff, freely travels across Europe, as well as to Washington in his new capacity as co-chairman of the U.S.-Russia working group on civil society (sic). The list could include those, like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who orchestrated the state looting of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s now-defunct oil company. The list could include officials involved in election fraud, media censorship, and politically-motivated “trials”—all of these not only undemocratic, but actually prohibited under the OSCE Copenhagen Commitments and the Council of Europe’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters that apply to the Russian Federation.

The case for “personal sanctions” is clear. They are morally and legally justified. They can be effective. They can improve very real human lives, including those of Russia’s political prisoners. Too bad that, with a few exceptions, the political will—or the political courage—appears to be lacking both in Brussels and in Washington.

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