In Mr. Biden's Moscow visit, a welcome mention of rights

Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:50 PM

VICE PRESIDENT Biden was in Moscow this week to deliver what sounded like a halftime report on one of the Obama administration's signature foreign policy initiatives. The "reset" of relations with Russia, Mr. Biden declared, "is working" - and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seemed to agree. The two men went over the successes of the past two years, including a nuclear arms agreement and greater cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan, and talked about opportunities for further accord. Mr. Biden mentioned a potential U.S.-Russian deal on missile defense, while Mr. Putin proposed visa-free travel between the two countries - something the vice president, surprisingly, dubbed "a great idea."

In fact, deals on such issues don't look likely as a Russia bolstered by swelling oil revenue heads toward a presidential election in which Mr. Putin may retake his old job from Dmitry Medvedev, the man he installed in it in 2008. Mr. Medvedev has tried to cast himself as a modernizer less tied than Mr. Putin to Russia's lawless rule and police state brutality, and the Obama administration has cultivated him. But he has made no progress in ending the "legal nihilism" he once denounced, or even the regular murders of journalists and human rights activists.

So it was appropriate that Mr. Biden devoted part of his principal speech in Moscow to some of the issues that the "reset" overlooked. Saying Russia's "business and legal climate . . . presents a fundamental obstacle," he brought up two major cases in which business figures who ran afoul of Mr. Putin or corrupt officials around him were persecuted. Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the vice president noted, was "arrested after accusing the police of fraud and then die[d] in detention before being tried"; and there were "allegations of misconduct" in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil company executive whose second trial on corruption charges last year was, in fact, a blatant farce.

Mr. Biden went on to argue that the economic modernization and foreign investment that the Russian leadership says it wants cannot happen without "political modernization." "Russians want to choose their national and local leaders in competitive elections," he said. "They want to be able to assemble freely, and they want a media to be independent of the state. And they want to live in a country that fights corruption."

While hardly groundbreaking, such high-profile and public demarches to Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev on human rights have been rare enough during the Obama administration that Mr. Biden's intervention was notable and commendable. Yet the administration should not limit itself to words. Actions to punish Russian officials involved in the persecution of Mr. Magnitsky and Mr. Khodorkovsky - such as banning them from receiving U.S. visas and freezing their assets - would more tangibly align the United States with those in Russia who seek reform.

In the absence of such steps - or a political opening in Moscow - Congress should look skeptically on Mr. Biden's call for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevents the extension of permanent trade benefits to Russia. While the improvement of U.S.-Russian relations has yielded some gains, further progress is unlikely without movement on the "fundamental obstacle" that Mr. Biden described.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company