"We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country..."- President Thomas Jefferson
On Thursday, June 7, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will convene a hearing at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs which she chairs. However, instead of using her committee's significant resources to conduct the People's business, she will take up the Magnitsky Bill, a controversial issue that may hinder U.S.-Russia relations outside of logic and reason.
The name of this H.R. 4405 bill references the death in 2009 in Russia of Sergei Magnitsky who died while in pre-trial detention on a tax fraud case after being refused medical treatment for his illnesses. President Dmitry Medvedev at the time dismissed a number of top local and federal prison officials over it. Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin called the death a "tragedy." The investigation into Magnitsky's mistreatment and the whole case of alleged tax fraud by his employer - the Hermitage Fund - is still going on. So is there a role here for U.S. Congress to play? The short answer is "No."
The Magnitsky Bill calls for U.S. visa denial and assets freeze for all Russian officials involved in mistreating Magnitsky or in some other "gross human rights violations." However, it looks like Congress is overstepping its boundaries as the State Department and the U.S. embassies abroad have the full authority, which they often use, to deny entry visas to any individual with no explanation whatsoever. Freezing the foreign assets is a bit more complicated but still can be done - if there are sufficient grounds. The recent examples of freezing the Iranian, Libyan or Syrian assets are cases in point, all without Congress involvement.
Besides, attaching Magnitsky's name to such a bill is clear proof of selective justice - something that we frequently accuse Russia of - since, sadly enough, similar cases of deaths in prisons due to denial of proper medical service happen in many other countries, including the United States (consider, e.g., Adam Montoya's death at the Pekin, Illinois, federal penitentiary in 2009).
Somehow, there is a reason to suspect that the Magnitsky bill is not so much to do with punishing his tormentors as with poking the Bear, or more precisely Vladimir Putin in the eye. Why Congressional sponsors of this bill would do that is anyone's guess. It is easy to see, though, that demonizing Putin, whose cooperation in many parts of the world we need, totally contravenes U.S. national security interests.
This isn't the first time Congress is getting involved in a Russian witch hunt. In 2007, there was a Resolution alleging Russian government involvement in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian fugitive who became a British citizen. World headlines heralded that a "Former KGB spy was murdered on orders of Putin." The news stories were based on a deathbed statement of Litvinenko.
It turned out that the entire story was a fabrication. The reports were specious. A former Soviet citizen admitted that he had written the so-called "deathbed statement" himself, and tried to pass it off as Litvinenko's own words. The fabricator acknowledged he had no evidence to back up his wild claims. In fact, he was part of a group of London-based "human rights activists" who hired a top British PR firm to spread their phony story. This whole caper is subject of a book by media business analyst William Dunkerley called "The Phony Litvinenko Murder."
What a waste of Congressional time and prestige that 2007 Resolution was! The same goes for this new bill.
With all the problems that we face today, America needs more friends, rather than foes. Regrettably, all by-partisan sponsors of this dubious bill - which is supposed to replace the totally obsolete Jackson-Vanik amendment so harmful these days for U.S. businesses - obviously think otherwise. No wonder Congress approval rating is in the single digits now.
It is the time Congress members took the interest of the American people first rather than those of foreign and domestic lobbyists. It is the time to concentrate on building mutually beneficial U.S. - Russia security and economic cooperation instead of wasting tax-payers money on useless and harmful resolutions.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow and Professor of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State University.