The Post reports:
Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former oil tycoon, lost an appeal of his second conviction for fraud Tuesday, but his sentence was cut by a year and now will end in 2016.
Khodorkovsky and his business partner and fellow defendant, Platon Lebedev, had been convicted in December of embezzling nearly $30 billion from Yukos, the oil company they ran. Khodorkovsky had antagonized Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and the charges were widely considered not only politically motivated but also legally dubious.
Khodorkovsky, to the applause of the courtroom crowd, had this stem-winder statement on the court’s ruling:
In what dusty cellar did they dig up that poisonous Stalinist spider who wrote this drivel?
What kind of long-term investments can one talk about with such justice?
No modernization will succeed without a purging of these cellars.
The authors of the verdict have shown both themselves and the judicial system of Russia in an idiotic light, having declared in a high-profile, public trial that in Russia injured parties from a theft receive a profit, that the aspiration to increase it is a crime, that the “right” prices for oil in Siberia must be equal to the prices in Western Europe, transportation, customs duties and restrictedness of export notwithstanding.
It is exactly this sort of human rights abuse that has prompted Congress to step up in the absence of tough action by the Obama administration. (The White House was virtually silent when Khodorkovsky was originally sentenced and has yet to release any comments.) In The New Republic, Eli Lake reported last week:
Last September, Senator Ben Cardin introduced a little-heralded piece of legislation that would ban the issuance of visas to Russian officials implicated in the torture and death of a Moscow tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Magnitsky had exposed a ring of corrupt officials from the powerful interior ministry, in what is considered the biggest case of tax fraud in modern Russian history. For his troubles, he was tortured and kept in isolation in a Russian prison for a year before dying in police custody. . . . For decades, the United States’ greatest efforts on behalf of human rights in the country have focused on pressuring [Russia] to allow its citizens the freedom to travel and emigrate. Now, it seems, one of the most effective things the United States could do might be the reverse: restricting the freedom to travel of its top human rights abusers.
And that is what Cardin did on Friday. Cardin and an impressive array of 15 other senators from both parties, including Sens. John McCain (R-Az), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. In a floor statement, Cardin explained:
Despite occasional rhetoric from the Kremlin, the Russian leadership has failed to follow through with any meaningful action to stem rampant corruption or bring the perpetrators of numerous and high-profile human rights abuses to justice.
My legislation simply says if you commit gross violations of human rights, don’t expect to visit Disneyland, Aspen or South Beach and expect your accounts to be frozen if you bank with us. This may not seem like much, but in Russia the richer and more powerful you get, the more danger you are exposed to from others harboring designs on your fortune and future.
The bill takes some tough steps the Obama administration has so far declined to pursue. The bill:
Makes an alien ineligible for entry or admission to the United States when the Secretary of State in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury determines such alien to be: (1) an individual who was responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky or participated in efforts to conceal the legal liability of any person for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky; (2) an individual who conspired to defraud the Russian Federation of taxes on corporate profits through fraudulent transactions and lawsuits against the Hermitage foreign investment company; (3) an individual who was responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights committed against any persons seeking to expose illegal actions of officials of the Russian government or to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights.
Directs the Secretary of the Treasury to: (1) instruct domestic financial institutions and agencies to take specified measures if the Secretary makes a money laundering determination relating to such conspiracy, and (2) freeze and prohibit U.S. property transactions of an individual who is prohibited from entering the United States or acts as an agent for such an individual.
Requires a report to Congress not later than 180 days after enactment and annually thereafter.
Why does this matter? Putin’s thugocracy depends on the willingness of lower-level officials to carry out his orders, to suppress dissent and to maintain the corrupt and repressive regime. In post-Communist Russia, there is no ideological motivation for the regime and its officials; it is the lust for power and wealth that keeps the Putin machine going. By taking away Putin’s ability to reward his flunkies, and indeed punishing them where they feel it most, the West can exert some pressure. It would help if we didn’t give away membership to Russia in the World Trade Organization, but that’s another story.
As Josh Rogin wrote in Foreign Policy, the Obama administration’s “reset” has accomplished little, leaving Congress to fill the vacuum:
One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Friday. “It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States in terms of the signing and ratification of the New START treaty, cooperation on nuclear security, cooperation with regard to Iran sanctions and nonproliferation generally, the northern distribution network into Afghanistan that supports our effort there, and our discussions with Russia about expanding trade ties and their interest in joining the WTO, as well as Russia’s increased cooperation with NATO that was manifested by the NATO-Russia meetings in Lisbon.”
But Rhodes didn’t mention what most in Congress see as Russia’s backsliding on issues of democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights.
The Obama administration doesn’t mind the bill. (Mike McFaul, National Security Council senior director for Russia, is supportive: “We actually agree with those in Congress who are concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia.”) It just wasn’t concerned enough to do anything on its own. Again this is leading from behind, I suppose.
Obama is set to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday. Maybe Obama might even mention the new legislation. He might go so far as to threaten to block WTO status for Russia until there is measurable improvement in Russian human rights behavior. If the stars are aligned, he might possibly inform Russia that the United States will be providing defensive arms to Georgia, 20 percent of which is occupied by Russia. (Has Obama ever demanded that Medvedev go back to the pre-August 2008 lines?)
You might doubt that Obama will be as tough with Medvedev as he is with Bibi Netanyahu. Me, too. Unfortunately, as admirable and essential as Ben Cardin’s bill is, there is simply no substitute for a determined president willing to wield all the tools (economic, diplomatic, etc.) in order to advance our values and interests.