Vladimir Putin’s brazen election fraud, conducted twice in the last few months, has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable position politically. The administration touts its “reset” policy as a success, but with Russia’s recent attempts to shield Iran’s nuclear program and protection of Bashar al-Assad at the Security Council–not to mention the election-year efforts to stir up anti-Americanism–that policy is increasingly defined by American concessions to Russia.
The reset has also put its architect, current Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, in the unenviable spot of having to defend his signature achievement. McFaul has a long and distinguished career writing about Russian democratization, and the inherently political job of a diplomat requires him to either excuse or ignore behavior by the Putin administration that he has been warning against all along. But the issue that put McFaul on the defensive is the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the Soviet Union’s trade status for its restrictions on Jewish emigration.
Since Russia was finally granted admission to the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik amendment–still on the books–now disadvantages American companies. The law has outlived its usefulness, and McFaul supports its repeal, the process of which could begin in the Senate Thursday. But while even Putin’s opposition (for the most part) supports the repeal of the amendment, they would like its legacy to be upheld. Specifically, they would like legislation addressing Russia’s deepening human rights crisis.
As it happens, there is bipartisan legislation with broad support sitting in Congress right now. Called the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011,” it would impose a visa ban on Russian officials involved in particularly heinous rights violations. It is named for the Russian attorney who was jailed without trial and left to die painfully in his cell as Russian officials, aware that he was in desperate need of medical attention, stood by. It is not only the proud owner of bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, but that rare piece of legislation that is the subject of broad agreement around the world. As Robert Kagan and Freedom House President David Kramer wrote in October:
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.
McFaul, however, is vocally opposed to the legislation and to tying Russia’s dismal human rights record to either the reset or trade relations. Yesterday in Washington, at an event organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, McFaul was challenged on this by Kramer and by one of Magnitsky’s former clients, Bill Browder. McFaul rejected their arguments, repeating only that Jackson-Vanik should be repealed. This was a clear evasion, because repeal of Jackson-Vanik isn’t the issue. Throughout the day, McFaul became increasingly irritated by the discussion. At a separate event later yesterday, McFaul was asked about it again:
“If you want to do something constructive, that’s an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria,” McFaul said. “I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don’t see it that way.”
The tetchy dodge aside, McFaul is minimizing the legacy of Jackson-Vanik. It has certainly been about pegging human rights progress with upgraded trade status (and McFaul talks about this in his book, Advancing Democracy Abroad). Russia’s admission to the WTO without a concurrent replacement for Jackson-Vanik–especially in light of Putin’s recent behavior–would represent a break with the bipartisan status quo in Putin’s favor. McFaul knows better and so do his critics.