A Bill that Cracks Down on Russian Corruption

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled today to take up the most consequential piece of legislation in years related to Russia: the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. With strong bipartisan support, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the Magnitsky bill is the most serious U.S. effort to address human rights and the rule of law in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The legislation is named after the 37-year-old lawyer who was jailed unjustly in 2008 after exposing a massive tax fraud by officials of Russia’s Interior Ministry. While in jail for almost a year, Magnitsky became ill but was denied medical treatment. In the end he was brutally beaten and left to die.

The proposed legislation is not about one man, however. It is about a Russian system choking on corruption, illegality and abuse. The new law would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against theofficials responsible not only for Magnitsky’s murder but also for other human rights abuses, including against individuals who “expose illegal activity” carried out by Russian officials or who seek to “defend or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” This includes journalists who have been murdered when they have dug too close to powerful officials or oligarchs. It includes human rights activists who have been beaten and crippled or killed for exposing the mistreatment of their fellow Russians.

Senior Russian officials have protested vigorously against the legislation, claiming it is an unwarranted intrusion into their country’s internal affairs. But the legislation denies only Russian officials who engage in human rights abuses the privilege of traveling to, living in or studying in the West, and of doing their banking in Western financial institutions. Russian officials who respect the rule of law in their country, who do not engage in the torture and beating of journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates and opposition figures, have nothing to worry about. Moreover, the legislation will not impede a visa facilitation agreement between the United States and Russia that is nearing completion, one that will strengthen people-to-people ties.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior Russian officials have described the legislation as “anti-Russian.” Actually, it’s just the opposite.

The Russian people today live in a system where corrupt officials spirit their ill-gotten gains to safe havens outside the country, where they can neither be taxed nor accounted for. Capital flight out of Russia totaled $84 billion last year, and it is on a pace this year to far surpass that. This corruption, and the forces who defend it by imprisoning or killing those who expose it, are gnawing away at Russian society from the inside. What the people of Russia need is a free and open public discourse where government officials can be held accountable. That kind of climate will attract the foreign investment Russia needs to grow and to diversify its economy.

Those Russians who oppose this legislation are no friends of a prosperous Russia. They are part of the problem.

Russian authorities have warned Washington that their government’s participation in President Obama’s “reset” of relations will end if Congress passes the Magnitsky legislation. Right now, it is not clear how committed Moscow is to the reset, with or without Magnitsky. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to skip last month’s Group of 8 summit at Camp David; the recent threat by Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Putin’s armed forces chief of staff, to launch a preemptive strike against NATO over an ongoing missile defense dispute; and the continuing harassment of U.S. Ambassador Mike McFaul, the author of the reset, all raise some doubts.

But in any case, we believe the Magnitsky legislation should be the starting point for a second phase of the reset, one that focuses on Russian respect for universal human rights standards and its integration in the open international economy, from which average citizens stand to benefit.

One element of that is Russia’s expected entry into the World Trade Organization. That is why we favor lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment, legislation dating to 1974 that denied most-favored nation status to countries, including the Soviet Union, that restricted the ability of its citizens to emigrate and travel. That legislation has long outlived its utility, since Russian authorities for years have eliminated such restrictions. The Obama administration and U.S. businesses that operate in Russia have been pushing Congress to lift Jackson-Vanik; doing so, and thereby granting Russia most-favored nation status, would level the playing field for U.S. companies.

But these measures can’t succeed if Russia continues on its current path. The human rights situation in Russia in the last dozen years has deteriorated significantly, as documented both by Freedom House and by the State Department’s Human Rights Report. These abuses are a symptom of the larger problem in Russia, which is the endemic corruption of people in high places. That is why Congress should replace Jackson-Vanik with modern legislation that addresses today’s Russia.