Last week, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov visited Washington D.C. at the invitation of the Institute of Modern Russia. While in Washington, he held talks on the Magnitsky Act with senior members of Congress. Speaking at a joint meeting of the Institute of Modern Russia and the Council on Foreign Relations, Nemtsov stressed that the adoption of the Magnitsky Act will be an important victory for Russian society.
On Friday, as members of the U.S. House of Representatives were voting to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations status and to simultaneously adopt the Magnitsky Act, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was observing the roll call from the House Gallery, at the invitation of Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nemtsov’s participation in the session was symbolic: for more than two years, the co-chairman of Russia’s People’s Freedom Party had been actively promoting a bill that would graduate Russia from “Cold War”–era trade sanctions and introduce targeted visa and financial sanctions for Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights violations. “This is a victory for Russia,” Nemtsov declared after the bill was passed by 365-43 votes—an almost inconceivable result in today’s partisan era.
During the debate, legislators from both party camps repeated each other almost verbatim. “At a time when the human rights situation in the country is going from bad to worse, it is all the more important to hold Russian human rights violators accountable,” asserted Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “We in Congress are united in our support for those fighting for democracy and human rights in Russia and will stand with them . . . until they have triumphed and their country has taken its rightful place among the democracies of the world,” concurred Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
The unified bill, H.R. 6156, officially graduates Russia (as well as Moldova) from the restrictive Jackson-Vanik Amendment, adopted in the mid-1970s in protest of the USSR’s emigration restrictions, and implements the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named after a Moscow lawyer who uncovered a large-scale corruption scheme, was arrested, and died in prison after being tortured and denied medical care. The law would impose a targeted U.S. visa ban and asset freeze on Russian officials implicated in corruption and “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” including “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”
“We in Congress are united in our support for those fighting for democracy and human rights in Russia and will stand with them ... until ... their country has taken its rightful place among the democracies of the world.”
Urging the bill’s passage, Russia’s opposition and civil society representatives and cultural figures emphasized that, while Russia continues to lack an independent judiciary, targeted international sanctions are the only way to end impunity for murderers, thieves, and falsifiers. This method is not only justified, but also fully legitimate: according to the OSCE Moscow Document, signed both by Russia and by the United States, “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern . . . and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” According to a June poll by the Levada Center, a plurality of Russian citizens (36 percent) support the idea of targeted foreign sanctions against those involved in the Magnitsky case (18 percent are against, 45 percent did not express an opinion).
Boris Nemtsov campaigned in support of the Magnitsky Act literally until the last minute: on the day of the vote, he met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). During these talks, the People’s Freedom Party co-chairman stressed the gravity of the situation in Russia and discussed the growing repression, which includes the arrests of those allegedly involved in the May 6th Bolotnaya Square “disturbances,” new laws on “foreign agent NGOs,” increased fines for public rallies, and an expanded definition of “high treason”—which could well affect Russian supporters of the Magnitsky Act. Nemtsov stressed that, given this context, the inability of the current Congress to complete the remaining procedures and adopt the law before the end of its term in December would be seen by Vladimir Putin as “America’s weakness” and would further strengthen his hand. Nemtsov reminded U.S. lawmakers that one of Putin’s first decrees after this year’s inauguration tasked the Foreign Ministry with “taking active steps to prevent the introduction of unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the United States of America against Russian companies and persons.” According to Nemtsov, the Magnitsky Act will destroy Putin’s “mafia system”: even high-ranking Kremlin patrons will be unable to protect corrupt officials and human rights violators from international sanctions.
The same issues were raised by Nemtsov during a roundtable entitled “Putin’s Crackdown: How Should the U.S. React?” jointly organized by the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR) and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The discussion, co-chaired by IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza and CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights Mark Lagon, was conducted in a Q&A format. Among the organizations represented at the roundtable were the U.S. Senate and Department of State, the World Bank Group, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, Amnesty International, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and others. Emphasizing that political change in Russia is a task for Russian society, Nemtsov noted the importance of moral support on the part of Western legislators and NGOs and of adopting measures such as the Magnitsky Act, which is “directed against murderers and abusers, and is in the interests of Russia.”
“Mass peaceful protest is a chance to change the system,” asserted the opposition leader, adding that other tools for exerting pressure on the Kremlin include participation in local and regional elections (not to win, which is practically impossible under the current manipulated system, but to allow the opposition’s message to reach the maximum number of people); the promotion of solidarity among anti-Kremlin forces, which is the goal of the newly elected Coordinating Council of the Opposition; and public education through a “new samizdat”—the dissemination of information on the crimes of the ruling regime through both the Internet and printed materials. Nemtsov noted that, unlike in Communist China, where the Internet was put under state control before it became a mass phenomenon, online censorship in Russia is unlikely: “If the Russian authorities decide to shut down Facebook, there will be not 100,000, but one million protesters on the streets.” Responding to a roundtable participant who wondered if free elections in Russia would be won by far-leftists and nationalists, the People’s Freedom Party co-chairman suggested that the results of Russia’s next free election will likely resemble those in Ukraine: 30 percent for the ruling party, 20 percent for the leftists, 15 percent for the liberals, and 10 to 15 percent for the nationalists.
The Magnitsky Act will destroy Putin’s “mafia system”: even high-ranking Kremlin patrons will be unable to protect corrupt officials and human rights violators from international sanctions.
The fate of the Magnitsky Act will become known in the next few weeks: the Senate must approve H.R. 6156 before the New Year. (The White House, which had long opposed the Magnitsky Act, fearing for its “reset” with the Kremlin, has indicated that it is no longer against the bill.) During his visit to Washington, Boris Nemtsov held meetings in the upper chamber —including one with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—to reiterate that the Magnitsky Act is the most efficient tool for countering Putin’s repressions, and that its final passage is needed without delay.