On April 12, the US government released its long-anticipated "Magnitsky list" that bans 18 people, almost all Russian officials, from entering the country and allows the government to seize their US assets (if any). In addition, the New York Times revealed there is an additional "secret list" that apparently have an additional eight names on it and a meeting later this month could add more. So the result of putting this piece of legislation into effect and releasing this list is what exactly?
The first result of the list was the entirely predictable Russian government response with its own list of 18 names of US officials, dubbed by some the Guantanamo list, as some are linked to the notorious prison camp in Cuba where the US is holding people indefinitely and without legal process on suspicion they are terrorists. However, most of the people on Russia's list are accused of torturing, kidnapping or otherwise abusing Russian nationals' human rights around the world.
The Russian foreign ministry is clearly irked and sent out a string of tweets following the publication of the US list: "It's time the US realise that building relations with Russia in a spirit of mentorship and outright dictate is futile... This war of lists is not our choice but we have no right to ignore outright blackmail... Our list includes those involved in legalising torture, indefinite imprisonment in Guantanamo, kidnapping Russians in third countries." And most pertinently: "The publication of the Magnitsky list has dealt a blow to bilateral relations and mutual trust."
Clearly, the first concrete result of the list has been to make already fraught relations between Moscow and Washington a lot worse. Indeed, bne has discussed the resumption of the Cold War, and this tit-for-tat moves the list has started is exactly the sort of point scoring that was a hallmark of the Cold War.
Over the weekend, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, caught the mood with a piece that said the Magnitsky list appears set to "play a role resembling that of the Jackson-Vannik Amendment during the Cold War." But he said it's unlikely there will be "a Cold War in the form that it existed during the 20th century." The new one will be "a caricature" of that and a "quite soft one."
The softer start to this Cold War is highlighted by the fact that by not including more prominent politicians on what is essentially a "blacklist", Washington "wussed out", according to US critics of its own law.
There were reports that up to 200 names would be placed on it, but in the end no high-ranking officials were included. The most prominent omission was the chairman of Russia's Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastrykin - a nasty piece of work by all accounts - although his deputy was named. Liberal opponents of the Kremlin had been hoping for a more VIP selection. Moreover, those on the secret list - the only name mentioned so far is Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who scoffed at his inclusion - only face a visa ban and can't have their assets seized unless their names are released.
In other words, Washington realised that publishing the list was going to be very damaging and attempted to limit that damage by shying away from putting anyone really important on the list.
But at this point you have to ask whether the list has done anything to fix the problem that it was proposed to address. No one will dispute that the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in pre-detention trial in 2009 was a tragedy and a crime. Indeed, most of the names on the US list are people directly connected to either his detention and abuse, or the tax fraud that saw $230m stolen from the Russian government. All of these people should be tried and convicted - and none of them are even being investigated.
However, does releasing blacklists in this way help deal with the problem? Quite clearly, this list will not only fail to pressure the Kremlin into acting, but if anything it will make it even less likely the Kremlin will do anything, because to do so would risk losing face - one of Russia's very Asian traits.
Strobe Tabott, a former US deputy secretary of state and Russia expert, tweeted over the weekend: "#Magnitsky law & list will not advance human rights in Russia. In fact, it's already counter-productive. That's Washingtonese for 'stupid.'"
He went on to sum up the dilemma: "2 wrongs don't make a right: #Magnitsky persecution shows dark side of #Putin's Russia; #Magnitsky law shows Congress at its most hamfisted."
Part of Russia's ire at the list is that it's so clearly designed to selectively punish Russia. Defenders of the list couch its rational in terms of the fight for human rights and the US "value-based" system that champions individual freedoms and sanctity of life.
However, this list is exclusively aimed at Russia. If the laws it is based on were generalised to allow Congress to blacklist any country that abuses human rights, although that would be a very aggressive thing to do it would be morally acceptable. But the double standards here are blatant. Washington has almost entirely ignored a Saudi court's decision to execute some minors convicted of burglary last month, and on the same day this list was released Deputy Secretary of State Mike Hammer was starting a tour of Central Asia with trips to Tajikistan and US ally Uzbekistan. On April 9, Hammer was in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent where he participated in a conference on "government transparency and press freedoms," and during the trip will "underscore the US Government's commitment to the region," the department said in a statement.
I am sorry, but this is a complete joke if the US is positioning itself to be the global judge that is going to hold other countries to its own high standards of human rights. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is an out-and-out dictator and a very nasty one at that - there is strong evidence his regime boiled one of his opponents alive. How can Congress reconcile condemnation of the Kremlin for the death of Magnitsky on one hand, yet condone an official high-level visit to Uzbekistan and pledge US friendship to a regime like Karimov's?
These double standards are not lost on the Kremlin, which is why it is so angry. Yet they highlight a deeper and more worrying trend in Russian relations with the world.
Because Russia's image is poor and its economic integration in the global economy is so weak, it's increasingly seen by western politicians as an easy target. If you want to polish your image, then be tough on Russia, as it costs you nothing politically but makes you look like a strong man. The only thing that Russia exports is oil and that's a commodity, so it doesn't matter how rude you are about the Kremlin, there are little economic consequences. Gordon Brown did this after he became PM in the UK. Mitt Romney did it during the last US presidential election. Congress is doing it now with the list. And the international press does it on a daily basis, as it makes great copy.
But it is a dangerous game to play, because Russia is becoming a more significant country. Its economic power is growing steadily, maybe not in the form of exported goods the West buys, but in the form of becoming an increasingly important consumer market for European firms.
Finally, the last question to raise is why if this list is clearly so useless in terms of what it purportedly is trying to achieve - force the Kremlin to improve human rights at home - was it put into law in the first place?
This raises the question about Bill Browder's role, the former head of Hermitage Capital and Magnitsky's friend and boss. Browder has campaigned tirelessly on Magnitsky's behalf and is identified by the New York Times as a big lobbyist for the bill. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that one of main reasons for the bill' existence has been Browder's work.
But this raises a difficult question. Browder is clearly pursuing a personal vendetta against the Kremlin - quite naturally given he reagrds it as being behind the murder of his friend and colleague. But without wanting to seem insensitive, does that justify a law that affects international relations between two major powers that affects the interests of some 500m people? I am not entirely sure what to think about this, but I think that at least for the sake of transparency Browder should be forced into full disclosure so the personal aspects of the case can be set against the national interest, and he should publish how much he spent in his lobbying effort and to whom in order to get this bill passed into law.
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