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Supporting human rights in Russia should be a core strategic interest for US

Putin- Russian Election

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a United Russia party's congress in Moscow on Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (AP2011)

On Tuesday, July 10, the Russian Duma will vote on ratification of the agreement for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Policymakers in both countries view Russia’s entry as a foregone conclusion.  The question before Congress therefore is how best to pressure Russia to respect human rights following its repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Passed in 1974, Jackson-Vanik tied favorable trade to the freedom to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It provided a foundation for Cold War human rights advocacy. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, approved unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 26, was meant to fill the void left by lifting Jackson-Vanik. 

Named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer tortured and killed in prison in 2009 after he uncovered a $230 million embezzlement scheme, it would sanction Russia’s worst human rights violators by denying them U.S. visas and freezing their assets in U.S. banks.

However, at the last minute, in order to assuage the Kremlin, the Committee chose not to single out Russia and passed a watered-down version of the bill, applying it to human rights abusers worldwide. Lost is the original purpose of the Act—to show ordinary Russians that the United States wants to see a better Russia—one that does not abuse its citizens and one that can be a strong partner to the United States, an ally with whom we share values.

Naming and shaming Russian human rights abusers provides an essential metric by which the White House can gauge its reset.

The final version further allows the State Department to keep the list of human rights violators secret. This contradicts the original purpose of the bill to name and shame human rights abusers in order to address Russia’s deteriorating human rights record.

Limelight is important. Ronald Reagan spoke up for Natan Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov.

“There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire,” Sharansky  told the Weekly Standard in 2004 when asked if there was a particular moment when Reagan became a source of encouragement “…This was the moment…Finally a spade had been called a spade.”  

As a small child in the Soviet Union, I knew the name Ronald Reagan for exactly the same reason, as did many other Eastern Europeans, who will be forever grateful to the former president for the hope his words brought.

It is difficult to imagine how financial institutions in the United States would ever freeze assets of human rights violators if classification and the State Department’s sense of diplomatic nicety prevented the release of their names.

Furthermore, keeping the list classified may create a precedent for the Obama administration not to publicize Syrian officials guilty of mass murder in Syria, or IRGC officials engaged in torture.

Almost four years after President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton inaugurated their “reset” policy toward Russia, they should recognize that such gestures will not win Russia’s cooperation on Syria, Afghanistan, Iran or missile defense; Moscow only cooperates on issues that it believes bolsters its own interests or strategic position.

Russia’s human rights situation has not improved an iota despite the lip service that it pays to the issue. While realists like Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once counseled against human rights advocacy because they did not want it to interfere with their Cold War dealings with the Soviet Union, hindsight shows that moral clarity and willingness to sanction human rights abuses provided a turning point in the Cold War.  

Vladimir Putin’s government reacted with anger and condemnation to the Magnisky act when it first introduced, vowing “grave consequences” should it pass, and  threatened to deny Americans visas to visit Russia. 

Not only does this bluster indicate Russian vulnerability, but it also shows that Putin remains more interested in bolstering his own image as a popular strongman than taking any serious steps to punish those who responsible for Magnisky’s murder.  His manufactured outrage at the United States is simply a political crutch which he shows no intention of abandoning no matter how obsequious President Obama or Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry may be.

Advancing human rights is not simply a nice thing to do; it is a core strategic interest. Allies share values. Alleviating pressure on Russia will win not Russian respect, but rather ridicule. Naming and shaming Russian human rights abusers provides an essential metric by which the White House can gauge its reset. Watering down the Magnisky Act is not statesmanship; rather, it signals to Putin that the United States is a pushover, and he can get away with murder.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter@annaborsh.