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Will Obama Ignore Human Rights in Talk with Putin?

On Monday, US President Barack Obama will meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. According to the White House, their bilateral agenda will include Afghanistan, Syria, missile defense, counterterrorism, and economic cooperation. No mention, at least so far, has been made of anything relating to democracy and human rights—despite Putin’s unprecedented crackdown, which now includes not only fraudulent elections and media censorship, but also political show trials and state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents,” as the Kremlin is labeling independent NGOs. Several participants of a May 2012 anti-Putin rally in Moscow are in jail for “inciting riots”; Alexei Navalny, a prominent anticorruption campaigner and opposition candidate for Moscow mayor, is on trial; and a third criminal case is reportedly being prepared against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known political prisoner, who has already spent nearly a decade behind bars.

“Attempts by some in the West, including in the United States, to adopt a realpolitik approach and to conduct ‘business as usual’ with the Putin regime contradict the most basic values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s former deputy prime minister, said in Washington last week. “Such policy is also counterproductive, since the Kremlin considers it as a sign of weakness—and, therefore, as an invitation to behave even more aggressively, both at home and abroad.” Nemtsov, a leading figure in Russia’s pro-democracy opposition, who has been at the forefront of the recent anti-Putin protests, was meeting with US policymakers—Democrats and Republicans—to discuss the situation in Russia and urge that democracy issues be an integral part of any US dealings with the Kremlin.

One of the most effective ways to uphold these values, according to Russia’s opposition leader, would be to implement the Magnitsky Act, which prohibits Russian human rights abusers from traveling to, and keeping assets in, the United States, “in full accordance with original intent”—in other words, to expand the sanctions list to include not only low-ranking pointsmen, but also their superiors. “Too many of those responsible for repression and human rights abuses have been let off the hook,” Nemtsov said in his testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the initial sanctions list published in April. “This is a grave strategic error. I hope that it will be corrected in the nearest future.”

“Stalin was a murderer, but he was not corrupt. Putin and his circle are deeply corrupt, and they care about their assets [in the West],” Nemtsov said at another Capitol Hill forum, co-hosted by the Institute of Modern Russia and the Foreign Policy Initiative. “And this is a chance for [the West], because even though Putin might act as if he has unlimited power and unlimited opportunities, that is not true. He only wishes he had that.”

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