Give the Next Russian Ambassador a Powerful Tool to Guard Human Rights

Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider the nomination of Michael McFaul as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia highlights one of three steps that Congress should take this fall related to Russia and U.S.-Russian relations.

The Senate should confirm McFaul, who has served as President Obama’s top adviser on Russia at the National Security Council. Second, both the House and Senate should waive the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which deals with emigration of Soviet Jews as it applies to Russia, and third, they should replace it with an up-to-date bill that would sanction Russian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses. These moves would strengthen McFaul’s hand as he heads to Moscow.

Notwithstanding some serious concerns we have had with Obama’s “reset” policy — we think the administration has oversold its successes, essentially ignored Russia’s neighbors and done too little on human rights concerns — McFaul is a renowned Russia expert, a strong proponent of democracy promotion (he recently wrote a book on the subject) and deserves the Senate’s support.

He regularly meets with representatives and activists from Russia’s neighboring states, even though those countries technically fall under a different directorate at the NSC. He also meets with Russian opposition figures and civil society activists in Washington and every time he travels to Russia. If he gets confirmed, we are confident that Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation will receive high-level attention at the U.S. Embassy. It would be particularly good to have McFaul in Moscow before Russia’s elections (for parliament in December and for the presidency next March), even if they will be flawed, so that he can offer a frank, on-the-ground assessment.

McFaul’s efforts would be enhanced if Congress both repealed the Jackson-Vanik amendment and in its place adopted the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. Passed in 1974, Jackson-Vanik denied permanent normal trade relations status to countries such as the then-Soviet Union for restricting Jewish emigration. Every year since 1994, however, Russia has complied with Jackson-Vanik requirements. That it remains on the books is a source of endless irritation to Russian officials and activists. Accordingly, graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik was supported by the Bush administration and is a top priority of the Obama administration. Fifteen countries have been graduated from Jackson-Vanik, a piece of legislation that served its purpose but has outlived its utility.

Yet Congress is reluctant to lift Jackson-Vanik for Russia. For starters, few members of either the House or the Senate are strongly advocating its demise. Second, other issues have become attached to Jackson-Vanik, such as Russia’s overall record on human rights. Finally, some members of Congress believe Jackson-Vanik offers a sliver of leverage by which to register concerns about Russia’s trajectory.

That’s where the Magnitsky legislation comes into play. Sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) with 21 Senate co-sponsors (nine Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent), the legislation would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against Russian officials responsible for serious human rights abuses, such as the 2009 death of 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky. Jailed unjustly after alleging that officers of Russia’s Interior Ministry took part in a $230 million tax fraud against his client, Hermitage Capital Management, Magnitsky was murdered in jail by being denied medical treatment despite endless pleas for help.

Like no other initiative in memory, this legislative push in both Congress and in Europe (the Dutch parliament in July unanimously endorsed a Magnitsky-like effort, and the European parliament has done the same) has struck a chord in Moscow and forced Russian authorities to reopen the Magnitsky case. Several prison officials where Magnitsky had been held are now the focus of investigations. In the absence of accountability and rule of law in Russia, American and European parliamentarians have made it clear that if Russian officials engage in major human rights abuses, they and their immediate families cannot enjoy the privilege of traveling to, living or studying in the West, or doing their banking in Western financial institutions.

This draft bill has already done more for the cause of human rights in Russia than anything done by the Obama administration (or by the Bush administration before it). It also caused the State Department to ban certain Russian officials implicated in the Magnitsky case, though this is not sufficient, and these individuals should also be added to an asset-freeze list.

Threats from Russian officials that passage of the Magnitsky legislation would sink the reset policy and end cooperation on issues such as Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan are hollow. Russia presumably is cooperating with us on these strategic challenges because it is in their interest to do so, not because they’re doing us favors.

By waiving Jackson-Vanik for Russia and passing the Magnitsky bill in its place, Congress would be arming the next ambassador to Russia with critical bipartisan support for advancing the cause of freedom and human rights in Russia.