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Obama Remains Obstacle to Sanctions

Senate Democrats corralling bipartisan support for commonsense sanctions legislation are experiencing a bit of déjà vu. In late 2011, the Senate agreed to new Iran sanctions by the widest possible margin: 100-0. Yet the Obama administration sought to delay the sanctions, and then worked to water them down. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez finally went public with his frustration toward President Obama for working so hard to protect Iran from the sanctions everyone had agreed to.

Now Senate Democrats are facing the same obstacle–President Obama–in trying to levy penalties on major human rights violators in Russia. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named after one prominent victim of those rights violators, the bill was sponsored by Ben Cardin and immediately obtained broad support. But on behalf of the Obama administration, John Kerry kept the bill bogged down in committee. So the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed its own version of the bill, and the White House finally dropped its open opposition to the bill. Now, as Reuters reports, Obama is trying to work changes into the bill that would essentially render it useless:

The measure would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the U.S. assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky’s death. The bill as originally written in both the House and Senate would make public the list of offenders and broaden it to include other abusers of human rights in Russia.

A reworked draft circulating in the Senate and obtained by Reuters would allow the list to “contain a classified annex if the Secretary (of State) determines that it is necessary for the national security interests of the United States to do so.”

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Backers of the Magnitsky bill want the list of human rights violators made public both to shame those on the list and to keep them from doing business with U.S. financial institutions.

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“How can an individual’s assets be frozen, if his or her name cannot be disclosed to financial institutions?” the aide asked.

The answer is: they wouldn’t. The move also comes as the bill received an endorsement from the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, which supported the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment sanctioning Russia for its refusal to allow Jews to emigrate. Jackson-Vanik will be repealed this year in order to establish permanent normal trade relations with Moscow as it joins the World Trade Organization. Rights groups here, in Europe, and in Russia want the Magnitsky Act to replace Jackson-Vanik so rights abusers can be sanctioned without disadvantaging American businesses.

The debate about the Magnitsky Act is playing out against the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s rigged election and post-election crackdown on protesters. Pro-democracy activists and politicians in Russia have been trying to convince Western leaders to show support for their struggle. As opposition politician Garry Kasparov tweeted last night: “Foreign laws that punish Putin’s crooks and thugs are not anti-Russian. They are pro-Russian people and anti-Putin. Critical distinction!”

But as with Iran, the Obama administration remains unmoved by that distinction and continues to try to block sanctions in favor of “engagement.” Yet if Obama is truly dedicated to a policy dominated by engagement, he should take the advice of Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer, writing in the Financial Times about Russia’s pro-Western reformers:

For the moment, the Kremlin has managed to ignore these voices, acting like neither a Bric nor a G8 member in good standing. Washington should not make the same mistake. If U.S. and European leaders genuinely want to build new ties with Moscow, these are the people they should be talking to.