20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 21st,  the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held its first hearings on Russia after the presidential elections. Despite official recognition of the election results, the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency caused debate on Capitol Hill. Some congressmen believed that the United States should work toward optimizing trade relations, while region experts urged the government to continue fighting against human rights violations.


Left to right: Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative at Brookings Institution and David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House


Although the hearings chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) were titled "Increased Repression, Rampant Corruption, Assisting Rogue Regimes,” in light of recent political events in Russia, the discussion was centered on the protest movement, and domestic and international politics in Vladimir Putin's third term. Experts invited to testify in front of the Committee were Leon Aaron, Director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, William Browder, CEO of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital, and Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative at Brookings Institution.

Experts and legislators alike emphasized the positive changes in Russia, such as the recent inception of an active civil society. Senators Dan Burton (R-Indiana) and Gregory Meeks (D-New York) said Russia was a young democracy that required more time and outside support in order to become truly democratic. Today, according to Leon Aaron, the protest movement in Russia resembles the American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. However, despite the positive trends, the Russia remains rife with corruption, human rights abuses, and the lack of the rule of law.

To illustrate the severity of human rights violations and the cruel treatment of prisoners in Russia, William Browder spoke of the notorious case of Sergei Magnitsky. Hermitage Capital, founded by Browder, suffered a raider attack from the government in the mid-2000s that led to a change in the company's ownership. Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was hired to investigate the case and find out what really happened. During his investigation, Magnitsky found damning evidence of a corruption scheme involving high-ranking law enforcement officials unlawfully seizing more than 5 billion rubles of Hermitage Capital’s paid taxes from the state budget. Magnitsky turned this information in to the prosecutor’s office. He was then suddenly arrested and charged with the theft of the same amount. After being in prison for almost a year, Magnitsky died. The deplorable conditions of the detention facilities and lack of adequate medical care were cited among the main causes of death.

Browder made it his purpose to identify and punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Since it was impossible to ensure justice for Magnitsky in Russian courts, Browder began working to attract the attention of the international community. As part of his ongoing efforts, Browder proposed a bill called the Magnitsky Act. The effect of the bill would involve freezing the offshore accounts and banning the entry into the country of persons suspected of crimes such as the murder of Magnitsky. The bill, supported by US Senators Benjamin Cardin and John McCain, would represent an unprecedented tactic in the battle with international human rights violations. Browder concluded his address by stating that he does not foresee any improvements on the human rights situation in Russia in the near future.


Left to right: Leon Aaron, Director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and William Browder, CEO of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital


Leon Aaron, speaking in support of the Magnitsky Act, said that any radical changes in Russian politics would be unlikely with Putin's return to power. Aaron spoke of a number possible developments in the current political situation. He speculated that Putin may make some concessions to the demands of the opposition and civil society at large. Another option, Aaron believes, is that the state will tighten the reins in the coming years, and the government propaganda will reflect this. He believes that the second option is more likely than the first. According to Aaron, the problem with the opposition movement in Russia today is that it has not crystallized into a political movement, and thus has little impact on the general population. In his speech, Aaron also touched upon the future relationship between Russia and the United States. "In light of recent Russian foreign policy actions such as imposing a veto on sanctions against Iran and Syria proposed by the UN Security Council, or building and anti-missile station in Kaliningrad, Russia, the relationship between the two countries could turn into frost," Dr. Aaron concluded.

During the hearing there was a clear divergence of views among legislators and experts on what the priorities should be for US foreign policy toward Russia. The experts called for more active US involvement in the protection of human rights in Russia, while the lawmakers emphasized that the focus should be trade and economic relations. As stated by Senator Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), "the U.S. should stop using double standards in assessing internal political events in Russia." Regardless of these disagreements, congressmen were unanimous in their belief that the ratification of the Magnitsky Act was important. Furthermore, Senator Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) stated that human rights protections should be a part of the dialogue on trade not only with Russia, but also other countries, including China.