Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sergei Magnitsky

Did Putin Miscalculate–Or Did His Critics?

Much of Vladimir Putin’s governance is characterized by actions both utterly plausible and in their own way shocking. Putin’s heavyhanded crackdown on the Moscow protesters following the elections in late 2011 with the world watching is one example. His support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the ruling party’s electoral shenanigans; the imprisonment of an all-female punk-performance art group; and the judicial system’s posthumous prosecution of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the hands of that very same judicial system, are others.

And now the same can be said for the verdict today in the trial of opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Russian corruption is alarming to say the least—it ranks 133rd on Transparency International’s 2012 index. Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade couldn’t come a moment too soon. Navalny became a shareholder in major Russian corporate and government entities, better enabling him to follow the money trail in the hopes of uncovering kickback schemes. He also utilized the Web to crowd-source corruption allegations. He nicknamed Putin’s United Russia the party of swindlers and thieves, a moniker that caught on and made Navalny officially a political threat to Putin.

His status as an enemy of the state was further solidified by his participation in the Moscow protests and his recent announcement that he was running to be the next mayor of Moscow. His imprisonment was only a matter of time. Today, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny on trumped-up charges of embezzling funds from a state-controlled company. He was sentenced to five years in prison. His “trial,” such as it was, followed the staged, predetermined process that has become typical of such cases, as the New York Times reports.

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Much of Vladimir Putin’s governance is characterized by actions both utterly plausible and in their own way shocking. Putin’s heavyhanded crackdown on the Moscow protesters following the elections in late 2011 with the world watching is one example. His support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the ruling party’s electoral shenanigans; the imprisonment of an all-female punk-performance art group; and the judicial system’s posthumous prosecution of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the hands of that very same judicial system, are others.

And now the same can be said for the verdict today in the trial of opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Russian corruption is alarming to say the least—it ranks 133rd on Transparency International’s 2012 index. Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade couldn’t come a moment too soon. Navalny became a shareholder in major Russian corporate and government entities, better enabling him to follow the money trail in the hopes of uncovering kickback schemes. He also utilized the Web to crowd-source corruption allegations. He nicknamed Putin’s United Russia the party of swindlers and thieves, a moniker that caught on and made Navalny officially a political threat to Putin.

His status as an enemy of the state was further solidified by his participation in the Moscow protests and his recent announcement that he was running to be the next mayor of Moscow. His imprisonment was only a matter of time. Today, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny on trumped-up charges of embezzling funds from a state-controlled company. He was sentenced to five years in prison. His “trial,” such as it was, followed the staged, predetermined process that has become typical of such cases, as the New York Times reports.

Although Navalny’s conviction was a foregone conclusion, many—apparently Navalny among them—hoped he would receive a suspended sentence, mistakenly assuming Putin would fear the backlash of jailing a public figure. But that expectation got it backwards: Navalny has a gift for organization and rallying the public; without him on the streets, Putin expects the backlash to be disorganized, haphazard, and leaderless. Putin has more to fear from an antagonized, but free, Navalny.

If that is indeed what Putin is thinking, his view is not unanimous even among his allies. As the Washington Post reports, authorities in Moscow actually wanted Navalny to be able to participate in the election because they believed they would win (or, rather, “win,” as such things go) and strike a blow against Navalny by defeating him instead of disqualifying him. Additionally, Navalny is not yet a household name. And he is prone to bad judgment: he has a history of allying with anyone who will join him, including racist and xenophobic nationalist groups—a tendency he has embraced rather than sought to curb, and which has alienated him from Russia’s liberals in the past.

And there is obvious benefit to Putin to rig the electoral process against his opponents rather than jail them. “Managed democracy” may have always been a farce, but the shaky illusion of democracy at least plays into Russian nationalist instincts to want to believe the country’s critics are wrong about modern Russia. The appearance that Putin fears Navalny, moreover, only fuels his supporters’ belief that Putin is weaker than people think. Turning a blogger into a dissident is no sign of strength.

As the Times article notes, both friends and foes of Putin are intimating that the verdict went too far:

Aleksei L. Kudrin, a close associate of Mr. Putin and former finance minister, described it on Twitter as “looking less like a punishment than an attempt to isolate him from social life and the electoral process.”

The crime novelist Boris Akunin, who is also a political opposition leader, said the verdict showed there was little hope to change Russia by democratic means. “Lifetime deprivation of elections — this is what the verdict means not only for Navalny but for all who thought it was possible to change this system through elections,” Mr. Akunin wrote. “As long as the Putin regime is alive, there will not be elections. The answer to the question ‘to be, or not to be’ that is to boycott or not boycott, has been answered. For other elections as well.”

The best parallel to Navalny’s case is not the punk trio or the whistleblower, but the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrested a decade ago and still in prison. Though Khodorkovsky’s story is far different in almost every way from Navalny’s, the important similarity is the underlying reason for their persecution: they challenged Putin in the political sphere. (Though in seizing Khodorkovsky’s assets, Putin was also reclaiming what he believed rightfully belonged to the state).

Putin’s leadership has been based on a grand bargain in which Russians are permitted all the Western culture and consumerism they desire (or can afford) so long as they don’t attempt to interfere in his political control of the country. Khodorkovsky wouldn’t play by those rules, and neither will Navalny. Whistleblowers can make Putin look bad, and punk activists can ridicule him, and those are both punishable offenses in Putin’s Russia. But they pose no major risk to his consolidation of power. The same could not be said of Khodorkovsky then or Navalny now.

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Putin’s Pathetic Response to Magnitsky List

You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.

On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.

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You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.

On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.

In reply Moscow announced it was barring 18 Americans who were supposedly responsible for human-rights abuses of their own from traveling to Russia. And the headline-makers among those targeted are… David Addington and John Yoo, of Global War on Terror fame. Perhaps Putin doesn’t quite get the American political process, which has something called political parties. He doesn’t seem to understand that Addington and Yoo are prominent Republicans. He could demand that they be sent to Siberia and few tears would be shed among their political adversaries who now occupy the White House.

Putin strikes marginally closer to home by barring Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who is at least an Obama appointee. His sin? He prosecuted Victor Bout, the notorious international arms dealer from Russia. Only in Putin’s never-never land is the prosecution of a merchant of death a human-rights issue.

In any case I doubt that Addington, Yoo, Bharara or anyone else on the list is particularly perturbed to be barred from visiting Russia which, last time I checked, was not exactly a popular vacation destination. Preventing prominent Russians from visiting the U.S. and using our banking system–which could ripple out to bar them from Europe as well–is, by contrast, a real penalty given the proclivity of the Russian elites to stash their ill-gotten assets in the West.

No doubt targeting the Russian human-rights abusers required overcoming lots of objections from the State Department, whose officials are typically worried that such steps will hurt their “relationships” with Russian officials and prevent the U.S. from winning Russian concessions on supposedly more important issues such as North Korea and Iran.

In reality, Putin is not going to make any concessions to the U.S. anyway unless he thinks they are in his interest. (This, for example, is why he is allowing limited use of Russian territory to help supply NATO forces in Afghanistan–he doesn’t want a Taliban takeover any more than we do.)

And there is no more important issue in our relationship with Russia than Putin’s treatment of his own populace. As long as Russia has a despotic government–as, alas, it has today, notwithstanding Putin’s pretense of holding elections–it will never be on good terms with the U.S. Just as in the days of the Cold War, it is vitally important that the U.S. show that it stands with the Russian people and against their increasingly unpopular overlords.

Only by championing freedom and human rights in Russia will we have any chance of working truly harmoniously with its government–not the current quasi-criminal regime, needless to say, but, one hopes, a future government that is truly elected by, and accountable to, its own people.

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The Tragic Cruelty of Vladimir Putin

It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.

If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.

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It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.

If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.

And why not? Because Putin signed the adoption-ban as a way to retaliate for the Sergei L. Magnitsky Act passed by Congress, which prevents Russians accused of human rights abuses from visiting the U.S. or owning property here. (Magnitsky was a crusading Russian lawyer who tried to expose official malfeasance and was thrown into prison, where he died after being denied medical care.) In other words Putin is compounding one human rights violation (against Magnitsky) with another–against orphans eager for a better future.

This gesture is so heartless and calculated that only someone like Putin–”Tsar”Vladimir–would be capable of it. The pity is that he has such complete control of Russian politics that there is little that his opponents can do to block his whims, no matter how inhumane.

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