MOSCOW — Russia is prepared to retaliate if the U.S. Congress passes the Magnitsky bill, which would freeze assets of and deny U.S. visas to Russian officials linked to human rights abuses, President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign adviser said Tuesday.
“We would very much like to avoid it,” Yuri Ushakov said. “But if this new anti-Russian law is adopted, then of course that demands measures in response.”
Ushakov’s comments came in an otherwise upbeat briefing on a meeting between Putin and President Obama set for June in Mexico. The Obama administration has been resisting the legislation, introduced by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), viewing it as too provocative, even as the State Department has acted on its own to refuse entry to Russian officials associated with the Magnitsky case.
But in a recent interview, Cardin said he was sure the bill would pass, adding that he thinks the administration is preparing to accept the legislation if it is paired with another bill granting Russia normal trade-relation status. That is required under the terms of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, one of the central achievements of Obama’s “reset” of relations with Moscow.
The administration has apparently realized that it cannot stop the Magnitsky bill and will have to deal with the anger of the Russian leadership. If Ushakov’s remarks were designed to encourage a presidential veto of the bill, they are unlikely to succeed, given the difficulty the White House would face in killing a human rights measure. It could come out of committee as early as next month, according to a congressional official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who accused tax officials of orchestrating a $230 million fraud against the government. He was arrested and charged with the fraud himself and died in jail in 2009, possibly from a beating.
Cardin’s bill has infuriated top Russian officials, most of whom apparently keep their sizable personal fortunes in dollar bank accounts. “It hits them where it hurts,” Cardin said. It is designed to replace the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was aimed at forcing the Soviet Union to allow freer emigration of Jews and other religious minorities.
Ushakov said Wednesday that Russia would prefer to live with the anti-Soviet Jackson-Vanik measure than to have it replaced by the anti-Russian Magnitsky bill.
Angela Stent, a professor of Russian studies at Georgetown University, said at a recent forum that Cardin’s bill is a feel-good measure that might have unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences.
Cardin called the State Department’s decision last summer to deny visas to Russians connected to Magnitsky’s death — without publishing their names — a good start. “But we need a list because we need to shame,” he said. “Unless you list names, you don’t get the response you need.”
On Friday, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul said in a speech to university students in Moscow that he drew up the as-yet unpublished roster of affected officials and that it includes some who are associated not with the Magnitsky case but with other violations.
That speech brought a torrent of critical tweets from the Russian Foreign Ministry. The complaints weren’t strictly about the Magnitsky list, but they revived a publicity campaign against McFaul that had died down since March. “Utterly shocked,” one tweet said. “Ambassadors’ job, as we understand it, is to improve bilateral ties, not to spread blatant falsehoods through the mediasphere,” another said.
McFaul, an academic who worked in the White House handling Russia policy before becoming ambassador last year, later tweeted back that he needs to learn how to speak more diplomatically.
Charging a whistleblower with the crime he is trying to expose has been done here before. In a year-old case, Alexei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption blogger and a leader of the political protests that broke out in December, had been charged with defrauding a timber company when he worked for the governor in Kirov. The case was finally dropped for lack of evidence of a crime, but investigators said Tuesday that they had decided to reopen it.
That move and the threats over the Magnitsky bill follow closely another recent case fueling suspicions that Putin’s government has resolved to ward off any attempts by outsiders to hold it accountable.
Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker from the Just Russia party, had emerged as a protest leader. Last week, his family’s security company was raided by police, who at first announced that they had found weapons improperly stored. On Monday, they backed down from the allegation but declared that the firm’s employees had not provided access to the weapons storage area when asked — and, therefore, revoked its license.
“It’s a falsification,” Gudkov said Tuesday. “It’s because of my political activities. Unfortunately, they chose the way of repression.”