MOSCOW — The visit of a multimillionaire Russian senator to the United States last week was difficult, upbeat and contradictory — the very image of the reset-retrench relationship between the two countries.
Vitaly Malkin was in Washington to confront Congress over the Magnitsky bill, which would put Russians connected with human rights abuses on a blacklist, denying them U.S. visas and freezing their assets.
The bill has infuriated Russian officials, and they speak about it often and with vehemence. “We really don’t want the U.S. Congress to adopt this bill, which has the potential to deteriorate U.S.-Russia relations for years, or even for decades, to come,” Malkin said at a news conference last Wednesday.
But the day before found him at the Open World office at the Library of Congress, posing for a friendly photo with James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, and discussing his commitment of more than $1 million to the U.S. government-run Open World program. Malkin’s money helps send prospective leaders from his constituency on exchanges to the United States to learn about good governance, rule of law and other highlights of democracy.
While Malkin and three colleagues from the upper house of parliament were in the United States, Russia’s lower house was adopting a law requiring non-governmental organizations that accept foreign money and engage in election monitoring, human rights advocacy and corruption fighting to declare themselves as foreign agents.
Russian activists say the foreign agent law, which the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to rubber-stamp this week, was pushed along in retaliation for the Magnitsky bill.
Such are the challenges of the reset, a course President Obama set upon while taking office to transform deteriorated relations by finding areas of common interest. On those grounds, the administration declares it a success, with agreement on the New START nuclear weapons treaty, Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, cooperation on Iran and permission to supply Afghanistan through Russian territory.
Now comes the retrenchment, with Russia blocking U.S. initiatives to resolve the conflict in Syria, threatening retaliation if the West proceeds with a missile defense system in Europe and cracking down on democracy-building organizations that receive U.S. funds.
Between lobbying Congress and meeting with administration officials, Malkin was off to Chicago, where he promoted the opening of a Russian consulate and met with political, financial and cultural figures.
In Washington, his delegation was trying to convince American leaders that they were wrong about Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian who was working for an American law firm in Moscow when he uncovered a $230 million tax fraud. When Magnitsky accused Russian police and tax officials of the crime, they arrested him. After nearly a year in pretrial detention, he died in prison at 37.
Russia’s presidential human rights commission has rejected official explanations that Magnitsky died of natural causes and suggested that he may have been tortured. U.S. and European officials have asserted that Russia has covered up the facts and have been considering sanctions, with U.S. legislators naming a bill in Magnitsky’s honor. Russia’s leadership regards the bill as an insulting interference in its domestic affairs.
In Washington, the Malkin delegation presented documents that it contended were produced by a parliamentary investigation and showed Magnitsky was lying, a drunk and out of shape. The documents also showed that Magnitsky’s client, Hermitage Capital, run by American-born William Browder, was guilty of tax evasion, the delegation said.
In an interview Tuesday, Valery Borshchev, who as a member of Russia’s presidential human rights commission conducted a detailed inquiry into Magnitsky’s death, said the Russian parliament had done no investigation.
“What they said was nonsense, complete nonsense,” Borshchev said. His commission found that investigators prevented Magnitsky from receiving medical treatment and that he was handcuffed and beaten with batons just before his death. The commission’s report has not been pursued — it was sent for action to those it implicated. Since then a doctor was accused of negligence, but the charges were dropped when the statute of limitations expired.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Malkin said that Magnitsky may have been “kicked one times or two times, but this is not the reason for his death.” He said a doctor with the wrong specialty — an epidemiologist — treated Magnitsky and was unable to provide proper care.
None of the American officials has revealed a change of mind, but on Tuesday the delegation reported back to the Federation Council’s international affairs committee. A deputy foreign minister called the visit a success.
“Their work was exceedingly useful, because it allowed us to inform our partners there of the actual situation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, repeating that Russia would retaliate with its own list if the Magnitsky bill becomes law.
“There is a whole range of situations in the U.S. where senior and other officials of this country’s ministries and agencies are responsible for systematic and severe human rights violations,” he said.
Malkin has had his own visa travails. He has been denied a Canadian visa for “being a member of a group engaged in organized or transnational crime,” which he denies.
Malkin made his money in business with Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian who is No. 153 on the Forbes world billionaire list. Ivanishvili is offering a political challenge to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is much despised by Russian President Vladimir Putin.