Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post. His latest book is “The World America Made.” David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 2008 to 2009.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled today to take up the most consequential piece of legislation in years related to Russia: the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. With strong bipartisan support, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the Magnitsky bill is the most serious U.S. effort to address human rights and the rule of law in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The legislation is named after the 37-year-old lawyer who was jailed unjustly in 2008 after exposing a massive tax fraud by officials of Russia’s Interior Ministry. While in jail for almost a year, Magnitsky became ill but was denied medical treatment. In the end he was brutally beaten and left to die.
The complicated choreography behind Putin’s return to power.
The proposed legislation is not about one man, however. It is about a Russian system choking on corruption, illegality and abuse. The new law would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against theofficials responsible not only for Magnitsky’s murder but also for other human rights abuses, including against individuals who “expose illegal activity” carried out by Russian officials or who seek to “defend or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” This includes journalists who have been murdered when they have dug too close to powerful officials or oligarchs. It includes human rights activists who have been beaten and crippled or killed for exposing the mistreatment of their fellow Russians.
Senior Russian officials have protested vigorously against the legislation, claiming it is an unwarranted intrusion into their country’s internal affairs. But the legislation denies only Russian officials who engage in human rights abuses the privilege of traveling to, living in or studying in the West, and of doing their banking in Western financial institutions. Russian officials who respect the rule of law in their country, who do not engage in the torture and beating of journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates and opposition figures, have nothing to worry about. Moreover, the legislation will not impede a visa facilitation agreement between the United States and Russia that is nearing completion, one that will strengthen people-to-people ties.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior Russian officials have described the legislation as “anti-Russian.” Actually, it’s just the opposite.
The Russian people today live in a system where corrupt officials spirit their ill-gotten gains to safe havens outside the country, where they can neither be taxed nor accounted for. Capital flight out of Russia totaled $84 billion last year, and it is on a pace this year to far surpass that. This corruption, and the forces who defend it by imprisoning or killing those who expose it, are gnawing away at Russian society from the inside. What the people of Russia need is a free and open public discourse where government officials can be held accountable. That kind of climate will attract the foreign investment Russia needs to grow and to diversify its economy.