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Two Russias React to US Visa Sanctions Bill

Western proponents of realpolitik and the Kremlin’s “fellow travelers” routinely caution world leaders against criticizing Moscow over its dismal human rights and democracy record, as such criticism, in their view, would only “irritate Russia” and sour relations. This argument is true—if one takes “Russia” to mean Vladimir Putin’s unelected clique of corrupt bureaucrats, former security operatives, and billionaire friends. For those who do not equate a great nation with a rogue regime and pay attention to the genuine voices of Russian society, such a view is a travesty. With regard to human rights, nowhere is the discrepancy between the two Russias more evident than in the attitudes toward S.1039, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, a US Senate bill that would impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on Russian officials responsible for violating human rights, including “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”

The bipartisan measure, cosponsored by 22 senators, resonated in Moscow’s ruling circles as no “statements of concern” or “nonbinding resolutions” ever could. Following its introduction in May, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief political enforcer, personally flew to Washington to relay his bosses’ dissatisfaction. The regime’s spokesmen warned the US not to go through with the initiative. Last week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the proposed legislation “an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs,” declaring that “no one among our foreign partners has a right to … force decisions on us.” Calling S.1039 “a political provocation against our country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich announced a “reciprocal” step: an unpublished list of “Washington officials implicated in … humanitarian crimes” who will be banned from entering the Russian Federation. As a high-ranking Capitol Hill staffer quipped, “freezing the Sberbank [Russian state savings bank] accounts of senior US officials is going to seriously complicate many folks’ retirement planning.”

While Moscow was imitating “reciprocity,” two US senators with the most influence over S.1039—Majority Leader Harry Reid and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry—received a letter from the leaders of Russia’s cultural intelligentsia, civil society, and pro-democracy opposition. The letter—signed by, among others, film director Eldar Ryazanov; actors Liya Akhedzhakova, Natalia Fateyeva, and Alexey Devotchenko; pro-democracy leaders Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov; and columnists Boris Vishnevsky and Victor Shenderovich—stresses that “human rights should not be sidelined for the sake of political interests” and urges the Senate to consider S.1039 “without delay.” “Opposition politicians, human rights advocates and civic activists have become victims of persecutions and unlawful arrests under made-up pretexts,” the letter continues, “Such persecutions will not cease as long as those who are responsible for the death of [Sergei] Magnitsky, for the imprisonment of [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky and [Platon] Lebedev, and the crackdown on Russian civil society remain unpunished.” A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that 44 percent of Russians support the idea of Western visa sanctions against those implicated in the case of Magnitsky, a young anticorruption lawyer imprisoned and tortured to death in a Moscow jail (13 percent are opposed; others have no firm opinion).

With such clearly stated position, the argument against “irritating Russia” over human rights—fallacious to begin with—loses all credibility. Two Russias—the regime and the society—have spoken on the matter. It is up to Western policymakers to decide which one to listen to.

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