When Human-Rights Legislation Goes Wrong

U.S. advocates of the Magnitsky Act should not be surprised when Russia's government fights back.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved the Sergei Magnitsky Law and Accountability Act, a bill that would enable the administration to more easily implement visa and banking restrictions on Russian officials accused of human-rights abuses. This brings the bill, first introduced in 2011, one step closer to final passage. But supporters of the act, like most advocates of aggressive human-rights legislation, are very reluctant to acknowledge the potential downsides of their activity. In fact, they almost uniformly are dismissive and contemptuous of the likely Russian response. 

Prominent sponsors of the bill, including senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, seem to think Moscow will do nothing more but engage in some agonized theatrics as the Russians play a weak and ultimately losing hand. These supporters didn’t anticipate that passage of the Magnitsky bill would worsen Russia’s already precarious human-rights situation or that it would drive away some of the ever-dwindling number of effective opposition journalists in that country. But that may be precisely what is happening.

For Magnitsky act supporters, the only real risk is failing to pass the law; this supposedly would tell Moscow that it can act with impunity (why the Russian government would need to be made aware that it can act with impunity after twenty-odd years of doing so is never specified). Cathy Young, writing in the Weekly Standard, expressed this consensus view quite clearly, arguing that “with the Kremlin poised to increase repression in the face of growing discontent, a strong signal on human rights could not be more timely.” The need to “keep pressure” on the Russians is a constant refrain of Magnitsky supporters, as is the dangers that would immediately result if this pressure ever were allowed to slacken.

Yet over the past week, as passage of the Magnitsky bill has crept ever closer and grown more likely, several Russian supporters of the bill have found themselves the targets of an incipient media crackdown. This clearly is a reaction against the Magnitsky bill and its supporters, and it seems to be payback from the authorities.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a noted opposition journalist, recently was dismissed from the television station at which he had worked for eight years. While the station has stated that his departure was due to a long-planned reorganization, some see the firing of Kara-Murza as a signal to others: don’t step out of line, or you’ll be out of a job. Opposition activist and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a favorite among U.S. conservatives and a strong proponent of the Magnitsky bill, has suggested the decision to fire Kara-Murza may have come from an extremely high-ranking official: Alexei Gromov, the deputy head of the presidential administration. There is no way of confirming these rumors, but they certainly are within the realm of possibility. 

Anyone closely watching the Magnitsky bill should not be surprised that the Russian response was not likely to be ineffectual and half-hearted but drastic and severe. The bill does not punish only those people who were personally involved in the Magnitsky case; it essentially says that the United States can freeze the assets or restrict the travel of any Russian official guilty of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” (See pages eleven and twelve of the bill’s text). The determination of what exactly constitutes a “gross violation” is left to the secretary of state. Thus, the Russians are to some degree justified in interpreting the bill not as a precise instrument for righting a specific wrong—as it is often presented in the American media—but as creating the potential for dramatic infringement on their sovereignty. Understanding the stakes, they have reacted accordingly. 

Kara-Murza quotes a “senior media executive” describing the situation of opposition journalists: “It is one thing when you say or write something against them; it is completely different when you work against what they perceive as their own personal financial interests. You are no longer their opponent, you are now their enemy.”

This source is exactly right, but why is it the slightest bit surprising that the Russian government has reacted in an extremely negative way to an attack on the “personal financial interests” of its high-ranking members? Isn’t that just about the least surprising possibility? What did we expect the Russians to do, passively accept our attempt to influence them? To sit idly by as the U.S. secretary of state determines whether their assets will be frozen?

Putin has struck a deal with other high-ranking government officials: loyalty and support in exchange for foreign travel, the opportunity to make money and turning a blind eye to any messy legal problems. As such, he must respond aggressively to the Magnitsky bill. If he doesn’t, he will look weak and ineffectual to the people on whose support he most directly relies. And so the Russian government will make a lot of noise, generally cause a mess, and engage in all of the spiteful and small-minded actions for which it is so well known.

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