Putin seeks to show he won’t buckle to U.S.

Alexei Nikolsky/AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, June 21, 2012.

MOSCOW — The Russian parliament intends to take up a bill Tuesday designed to hamper and frustrate civil society groups that accept money from abroad — which means, effectively, from the United States — in a move that is being portrayed as retaliation for the Magnitsky bill making its way through Congress.

The Russian legislation, which has the Kremlin’s backing, comes at a difficult moment in relations between Washington and Moscow, characterized by sharp disagreements over Syria and missile defense, and deep ambiguities concerning Iran. From the start, the Obama administration has tried to avoid linking one issue to another in its Russia policy — making trade agreements dependent on progress on human rights, for instance.

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Indeed, the administration opposes the Magnitsky bill, which would bar from the United States those officials who were involved in the imprisonment and subsequent death of the whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. But the deepening bilateral strains place the White House’s compartmentalization at risk.

The key moment was Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in March elections.

“Deep down, Putin believes the West is an opponent,” said Georgy Mirsky, an expert on Russia’s Middle East policy. “Not an enemy; he doesn’t believe there will be American aggression against Russia, no. But he believes the West is always trying to find a weak spot in our armor, to enrich itself at our expense — and we must respond in kind.”

That explains Putin’s position on Syria, Mirsky said — and it would explain the new attack on nonprofit organizations. Putin has accused civil society groups of working at the behest of foreign powers and of trying to foment political upheaval. He accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of giving the go-ahead to anti-government demonstrations in Russia last winter.

On Friday, even as Clinton was meeting with civil society leaders in St. Petersburg and encouraging them in their work, a member of parliament from Putin’s United Russia party announced that he would introduce a bill that would impose new regulations on nonprofit groups.

Clinton had come to Russia primarily to try to find a way around Moscow’s intransigent stand on Syria. But in the view of top Russian officials, the two issues she addressed have one important parallel — the United States pushing Putin’s government, on civil society at home and on Syria abroad, to see whether it will buckle. However much Western observers may disagree with that assessment, Putin’s image at home depends on him not buckling, Mirsky said.

If adopted, as seems almost certain, the bill would place what supporters of the NGOs say would be onerous burdens on organizations that engage in any activity that “influences” public opinion and that receive foreign financial backing. They would be required to register as “foreign agents” and to undergo twice-yearly tax audits and regular monitoring by law enforcement officials. Draconian penalties for infractions would include prison sentences.

“They want to block channels of free information,” said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, an organization that monitors elections in Russia and that receives almost all its $700,000 budget from American and European agencies. “It’s very negative.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 84-year-old leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the organization would refuse to register. “The main goal of this bill is to humiliate the independent organizations and NGOs and to set our citizens against civil society,” she said. “We are not agents of foreign states. We defend our citizens when their rights are violated.”

Critics of the Obama administration say the disputes with Moscow are proof that the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations has failed. Defenders point to Russia’s impending accession to the World Trade Organization, the signing of the new nuclear arms reduction treaty and continuing logistical support for the shipment of American military supplies into and out of Afghanistan.

Those gains, they argue, became possible because the administration was prepared to make progress where it was able to, while not ignoring more problematic areas such as human rights. That “de-linking” policy has its detractors — foremost among them those members of Congress who want to tie Russia’s trade status to punishment for officials involved in the Magnitsky case.

Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Magnitsky bill, which would bar officials tied to his case from visiting the United States and would freeze their assets. The legislation has been denounced by Russian officials — and resisted by the White House, which has quietly imposed its own visa ban, by executive order, and views the proposal as an unhelpful public slap at Moscow.

“Are we focusing on the human rights side? Quite frankly, one of the struggles here is to get our own State Department to focus more on human rights,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the chief sponsor of the bill, said at a recent forum.

Moscow, too, has its reservations about the reset. “The Russians feel they’ve done a lot for the U.S., and the U.S. never reciprocates,” Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who studies Russia’s Middle East policy, said in an interview in Moscow.

Russia enables the Northern Distribution Route for supplies to Afghanistan, and it acceded — much to its regret afterward — to a NATO role in Libya during the uprising there last year. But the U.S. response to Moscow’s help comes across to Russian officials as either condescending or nonexistent, Katz said.

“Regarding Libya, we were conned,” Yevgeny Primakov, a former foreign minister, said at a meeting in June. “We were deceived by our American friends. We were told it was closed skies. What resulted was something else. Aviation was used to unseat the Gaddafi regime. We learned our lesson, and we are taking a different stand on Syria.”

But the Kremlin also understands that the United States has no desire to go to war in Syria, Mirsky said, and believes that Western politicians are quite content to blame Russia for blocking action that they don’t want to take anyway.

Eventually, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is most probably doomed, Mirsky said, and Russian officials must know that. But rather than go along with Western policy — a course that will reap no benefits for Russia — Moscow can watch from afar and then blame it all on U.S. aggression. “It would be useful for our propaganda,” he said.

The public harassment of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul when he arrived here over the winter set a new tone for the bilateral relationship. It has since died down, and well-informed individuals on both sides say that the mood is less hostile in private than it is in public.

“But I don’t see a major improvement in the relationship in the next few years,” said Harley Balzer, an associate professor at Georgetown University, during a visit to Moscow, “and the Obama administration seems to understand that.”

Kathy Lally in St. Petersburg and Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

 
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