U.S. must maintain pressure on Russia over human rights

March 1, 2012

HAVING CAMPAIGNED on a platform of anti-Americanism, Vladi­mir Putin likely will be proclaimed the winner of Sunday’s presidential election in Russia, giving him a new six-year mandate — and likely inaugurating an era of unrest in a nation whose rising middle class rejects him. The United States, which has focused on cutting deals with Mr. Putin while largely ignoring his autocratic domestic policies, now has a clear interest in encouraging the emerging mass movement demanding democratic reform.

It’s therefore unfortunate that the Obama administration’s first initiative after Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency will be to lobby Congress to grant Russia permanent trade privileges. The problem is not the preferences, per se; it is the administration’s resistance to replacing an outdated protocol for pressing Moscow on human rights with one suited to this moment.

The White House is seeking the repeal of a 1974 law known as Jackson-Vanik, which links the trade preferences for Russia to free emigration. Repeal is logical for a couple of reasons: Russia, unlike the former Soviet Union, does not restrict the exit of Jews and others; and if the law is not removed, U.S. companies will be penalized after Russia enters the World Trade Organization later this year.

But a bipartisan coalition in Congress is concerned about removing this legacy of U.S. human rights advocacy without addressing the abuses of the Putin regime. Led in part by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the group proposes to couple the Jackson-Vanik repeal with a measure that would require the administration to single out Russian officials responsible for gross human rights violations, ban them from traveling to the United States and freeze their assets.

This measure could be as effective in its own way as Jackson-Vanik was on the Brezhnev-era Kremlin. Unlike their Soviet predecessors, senior Russian officials crave contact with the West; they vacation in Europe, send their children to U.S. colleges and, not infrequently, transfer their money through U.S. banks. A visa ban and asset freeze would be severe punishment for those involved in persecuting liberal politicians and journalists, or extorting money from U.S. companies. That’s why the Russian opposition strongly supports the measure.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, is doing its best to kill it. In part it objects to Congress mandating foreign-policy actions. (In an attempt to defuse the issue, the State Department last year banned visas for a few dozen officials involved in one notorious human rights case, the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, after whom the congressional legislation is named.) But the administration also worries excessively about provoking Mr. Putin. At a hearing Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Mr. Cardin that she agreed “we should send a message about our continuing concern about human rights in Russia.” But the State Department proposes only a modest program of aid to Russian civil society groups.

Mr. Putin’s imperious return to the presidency has destroyed his political legitimacy in Russia. The sensible U.S. response is to sanction those in his regime who are imprisoning and killing journalists, whistleblowers and advocates of democratic change. Trade preferences should go forward. But so should the Magnitsky bill.

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