You might not be familiar with Sergei Magnitsky, the 37-year-old Russian lawyer who died of medical complications while languishing in a Moscow prison back in 2009. You should be — Magnitsky’s case is worth knowing, both because of what it says about the nature of the Russian state and because it could soon prompt a substantial shake-up in U.S.-Russian relations.
A lawyer for the Moscow-based Hermitage Capital investment fund, Magnitsky ran afoul of Russian authorities when he stumbled across, and dutifully reported, evidence of massive official corruption. For his trouble, he was imprisoned and held without trial for nearly a year in squalid conditions on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and tax fraud. Toward the end of his incarceration, Magnitsky developed gall stones and pancreatitis, but he was denied proper medical attention by prison authorities. He died in November 2009 as a result.
To add insult to injury, Russia’s Interior Ministry has since posthumously moved ahead with prosecuting Magnitsky. Like the rest of the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s demise, the current case is fraught with absurdity. Hermitage lawyers believe that documents relating to the affair have been falsified, but so far — in time-honored Soviet tradition — they have been denied permission to see the case file for their client.
The Magnitsky case has generated considerable public outrage internationally. The White House, however, hasn’t had much to say about it. In fact, it has done a great deal to try to sweep the Magnitsky affair under the political carpet.
The reason is obvious. Since 2009, the Obama administration’s obsession with a “reset” of relations with Russia has resulted in an attempt to forge a new political relationship with the Kremlin on everything from arms control to normalized trade relations. To be fair, the “reset” has had some tactical successes — most notably, Russia’s acquiescence to the use of its airspace to resupply troops in Afghanistan, following Pakistan’s closure of overland supply routes into Southwest Asia last year.
There is little evidence that larger Russian attitudes toward America have changed. To the contrary, the Kremlin’s adversarial stance on an array of foreign policy issues — from Syria’s civil war to Iran’s nuclear program — suggests strongly that Moscow still sees Washington as the “main enemy.” Worse still, the “reset” has come at a tremendous cost: a laissez faire American attitude toward the capricious, unaccountable and deeply anti-democratic nature of the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That blind eye, in turn, has only served to reinforce the Kremlin’s authoritarian attitudes at home. This point has been hammered home by numerous recent instances, from the legal lynching of a punk band to the politically motivated prosecution of socialist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Last month, the lower house of Russia’s legislature rubber-stamped a controversial new bill expanding the legal definition of treason — a step that opponents say paves the way for the Kremlin “to put any civil activist, let alone rights defender, in custody.”
Fortunately, other parts of the U.S. government haven’t been so sanguine. The Magnitsky case has become a significant rallying point in Congress, where new legislation — colloquially known as the “Magnitsky Act” — enjoys broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. When Congress reconvenes in lame-duck session later this month, passage of the act will rank high on its legislative agenda.
The stakes are significant. If adopted, the House version of the bill will impose biting sanctions on a number of high-level Russian officials. The Senate version, meanwhile, has even broader reach, making it a potential vehicle for the United States to penalize not only human rights abusers in Russia but their counterparts in Iran, North Korea, China and other countries as well.
The Obama administration, however, isn’t keen to implement either. Administration officials are worried that holding the Kremlin to account on human rights grounds might fundamentally undo the “reset” they hold so dear. They also fear that Moscow might make good on threats of retaliatory measures if the act is actually signed into law.
This hesitation misses a fundamental point. The way Russia treats its own people has direct bearing upon its attitudes toward the outside world, the democracies of the United States and Europe most of all. The road to a true “reset,” therefore, cannot lie in keeping silent about the Kremlin’s criminalized domestic conduct.
The late Sergei Magnitsky certainly deserves that much. So do the Russian champions of transparency and democracy, who are still with us and desperately in need of solidarity from the West.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.