David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.
The decision to halt USAID work in Russia is just the latest in what has been an especially bad year for human rights in that country, though you wouldn’t know it from the virtual silence of Western leaders. Since Vladimir Putin’s formal return to the Russian presidency in May, there has been an across-the-board crackdown on civil society and the opposition. Beyond the show trial of members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, authorities have raided the homes of government critics and their family members, conducted criminal investigations and prosecutions of opposition figures and their spouses, and used brutal force against protesters.
Meanwhile, aside from spokesmen’s statements of concern, President Obama and most of his European colleagues have said next to nothing. A clear condemnation of Putin’s actions is necessary out of principle and to show support to those brave Russians who are fed up with authorities’ rampant corruption, abuses and heavy-handed tactics. Tens of thousands of Russians turned out at anti-Putin demonstrations last December, this spring and again on Saturday, despite the threat of arrest and beatings. Western governments should show unwavering solidarity with them.
More specifically, the U.S. government should make clear that support remains unchanged for Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Russian legislation due to take effect Nov. 9 would require NGOs that receive foreign funding to declare themselves “foreign agents,” a pejorative Soviet-era phrase rejected by many NGO leaders. Several Russian NGOs plan to challenge the legislation and want to continue receiving foreign funding, without which many would go out of business. But they are uncertain whether the U.S. government will continue supporting their activities.
This uncertainty is turning into despair with the Obama administration’s announcement Tuesday that it will comply with Putin’s request — detailed in a diplomatic note last week — that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) end operations in Russia effective Oct. 1. The administration is trying to put the best spin on this, but it simply isn’t credible. Instead of pushing back and forcing Putin to publicly kick out USAID — a scenario from which he might have backed down — the Obama administration has capitulated peremptorily, without even an expression of regret, betraying and demoralizing Russian civil society and setting a dangerous precedent under which repressive regimes elsewhere that don’t like our support for civil society and human rights can ask us to leave.
The United States should be pressing publicly and at the highest levels for Putin to reverse his campaign against NGOs, which is wholly inconsistent with internationally accepted norms. We should also join Russians in challenging other problematic legislation passed this summer, including the re-criminalization of libel and slander — which had been decriminalized last year — and massively increased penalties for participation in “illegal” protests.
U.S. officials say they are figuring out ways to quietly convey messages to Putin. But private missives simply won’t work. Putin is not going to be persuaded that his path is wrong; his interest is in staying in power at any cost. An August report detailing Putin’s luxurious lifestyle — 20 residences, 50 planes and helicopters, four yachts — underscores what is at stake if he were to relinquish power and lose his immunity. Only pressure from within and outside Russia is likely to force a change in his regime’s behavior. Accordingly, Western leaders, not spokesmen, need to speak out in a clear voice against Putin’s crackdown.
Congress, too, has a critical role to play. Passing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would send a strong message that there is a price for past and continued human rights abuses. The legislation, which the Obama administration has opposed, is named for a 37-year-old lawyer who was jailed unjustly in 2008 after exposing a massive tax fraud by Russian officials and then, after being brutally beaten and denied medical treatment, was left to die in prison. It would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against the Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s murder and other gross human rights abuses. It has strong bipartisan support in both chambers, and key House and Senate committees approved it in July as part of a package that would grant Russia permanent normal trade relation status.
Unfortunately, Congress appears poised to again fail to act on the package, which Putin is certain to interpret as U.S. weakness and lack of resolve.
Depriving abusive Russian officials the privilege of traveling to or living in the West or banking here is a neatly targeted penalty. It is not anti-Russian, for it goes after only those who engage in abuses. Nor is it a partisan attack against the Obama administration’s Russia policy, for its chief congressional sponsors — Rep. James McGovern (Mass.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.) — are Democrats. Passing the Magnitsky legislation would tell those Russians protesting Putin’s depredations that the West is on their side. It is an urgently needed signal, especially in light of the Obama administration’s cave to Putin’s pressure on USAID.