Vladimir Kara-Murza is vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.
“Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.” This phrase from Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, even if apocryphal, summarizes the Soviet regime’s attitude to repressing its citizens. The “crimes” used most often for political prosecutions in the Stalin era were the ones detailed in Article 58 of the criminal code, from “counter-revolutionary activity” and “anti-Soviet agitation” to “contacts with foreigners with counter-revolutionary purposes” and “urging a foreign entity to [conduct] aggressive actions against the USSR.” Reshaped and renumbered as Article 70 in the post-Stalin era, the criminal penalty for political opposition was finally abolished in September 1989 as the Soviet regime was nearing its end.
This week the Russian authorities brought it back. On Tuesday the State Duma approved on the first reading a law making it a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison, for Russian citizens to “intentionally enable foreign states, alliances of foreign states, or international organizations to impose restrictive measures on Russian persons and public entities.” Allowing for a different historical era, the formulation is almost identical to parts of the old Article 58. The vote in the Duma was unanimous. (Even the annexation of Crimea was ratified in 2014 with one vote against and three abstentions, but the few dissenting voices have since been purged from the legislature.)
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, laws are often passed with specific people in mind, whether it is to reward or to punish. A 2012 measure dubbed the Khodorkovsky Law and aimed at Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, prohibited individuals convicted of “grave crimes” from running as candidates in elections even after their release. (Disclosure: I work for Open Russia, a political organizational financed by Khodorkovsky.) That same law was subsequently used to bar anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny from the 2018 presidential race. A 2014 bill that would provide taxpayer-funded compensation to those affected by Western sanctions was dubbed the Rotenberg Law after Putin’s childhood friend and judo partner Arkady Rotenberg, who became a billionaire under Putin’s rule and who was subjected to U.S. and E.U. sanctions after the takeover of Crimea.
The latest addition to the criminal code has an intended recipient, too, and apparently it is the author of this piece. The direct name identification came from Andrei Isayev, deputy speaker of the State Duma from Putin’s United Russia party, who specifically cited my work in support of targeted Western sanctions on Russian human rights abusers. “I am warning him,” the lawmaker went on to say. “If the bill is passed and becomes law, such activities will be considered a crime.”
The official justification behind the measure is that participation in the imposition of such restrictions is directed “against Russia.” Of course, it is not. There can be nothing more pro-Russian than to bring much-needed accountability to those who violate the rights of Russian citizens and steal the money of Russian taxpayers — and continue to spend that money, buy real estate and park their families in the West. That is precisely what the Magnitsky legislation, now adopted in six Western countries, does, by prohibiting individuals responsible for human rights abuses and corruption from receiving visas or holding assets in their territories. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called it “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign parliament.”
Nemtsov played an instrumental role in making it a reality. “Without Boris Nemtsov, we would not have had the Magnitsky Act,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the act’s chief proponents, in a remarkable statement from a United States senator about a foreign politician. It was Nemtsov’s effectiveness as an international campaigner, not just his ability to win elections and organize mass protests, that made him such a dangerous adversary for Putin’s regime. He would have been the first to be indicted under this new article. But he will not be; he was killed on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015.
The Magnitsky legislation is a pale substitute for justice. The penalty for torture, murder, wrongful imprisonment or grand corruption should not be canceled vacations in Miami Beach or on the Côte d’Azur but a real trial in a real court of law. One day, this will be possible in Russia. For now, it is not, and targeted sanctions from Western democracies serve as the only mechanism of accountability for corrupt Kremlin officials and human rights abusers.
I will continue this work, as I know will many of my colleagues, regardless of any legislative novelties from the Russian government. As was often the case in Soviet times, humor is an important asset in facing political repression. The first thought that came to my mind when I heard of the new law was that, compared with my two near-fatal poisonings, three years in prison seem almost like a move toward liberalization.